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Maine lawmakers will face a lot of weighty issues this year — what to do with an $800 million surplus and other spending decisions, for example. So, we realize that extending a change that allows restaurants to sell to-go drinks along with takeout food orders isn’t a top priority. This bill, however, deserves passage.
Shortly after the pandemic began, restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 limited restaurants and bars to take out orders. To help those that were hit by the restrictions, lawmakers passed a bill allowing restaurants, bars and distilleries to sell to-go drinks with food orders.
The provision was extended in March but is set to expire in September. Lawmakers are considering legislation to make the law change permanent. They should. We don’t intend to make light of the concerning rise in alcohol consumption during the pandemic, but being able to enjoy a hand-crafted cocktail along with a take-out meal was one of the bright spots of the pandemic — and it gave important flexibility to the food service industry at a challenging time.
The bill, LD 1751, was sponsored by Democratic Sen. Louis Luchini, who recently resigned from the Legislature to take a job with the U.S. Small Business Administration. His work for the federal government created a potential Hatch Act violation if he continued to represent Hancock County in the Maine Senate.
Despite Luchini’s resignation, the bill, which was the subject of a public hearing on Jan. 10, remains viable.
“Maine’s hospitality industry has faced tremendous challenges these past two years, yet business owners and employees have adapted to keep their doors open while safely serving customers,” Luchini said in a press release. “One big part of this has been allowing the sale of alcohol to-go. I’ve spoken to dozens of bar, restaurant and craft beverage business owners over the past year, and many have said this ability has kept them afloat. Making this change permanent allows businesses to plan ahead and lets customers who may not feel comfortable dining out to enjoy a restaurant experience at home.”
During the pandemic, at least 30 states changed their laws to allow restaurants and bars to sell to-go drinks. Fifteen of them have made the law change permanent, Gregory R. Mineo, the director of Maine’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, told the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee last week. Only two states — New York and Pennsylvania — have allowed such a law change to expire.
“While restaurants and bars are less reliant on liquor-to-go than they were initially, with the current staffing shortages they’re experiencing due to the Omicron surge and no telling how long the pandemic will continue to linger, the Bureau recognizes that liquor-to-go continues to provide a helping hand-up to the industry,” Mineo said in his testimony.
He added, however, that while the bureau has no evidence of problems with the nearly 300 licensed establishments offering cocktails to go, the bureau does not have enough staff to ensure compliance with state liquor laws. To be clear, establishments selling drinks to underage Mainers would be breaking the law, as would companies delivering alcohol ordered online without confirming the identification and age of the recipient.
We hear the concerns raised by public health advocates in opposition to LD 1751. Nationally, there has been a significant increase in alcohol sales during the pandemic. There has also been a troubling increase in reported binge drinking. There isn’t data, however, to tie these increases to the sale of alcoholic drinks with to-go orders from restaurants, rather than an increase in sales of alcohol at liquor, grocery and convenience stores. The trade association for many of these stores and distributors opposes a permanent extension of the to-go drink law.
Continuing to allow to-go drinks isn’t going to change the world. But it will continue to allow Mainers to buy drinks with their take-out dinners, while giving a small boost to restaurants and bars.