News: Quick Takes

Provision allowing restaurants to serve to-go cocktails has chance to become law, lawmaker says

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said a provision in a pandemic-relief bill allowing restaurants to offer sealed, to-go cocktails may well survive negotiations with the Senate.

The House approved a $1.7-billion omnibus bill Thursday, April 30, a day after the Senate passed its $1.3-billion version. The two chambers will try to settle their differences Friday, May 1, and vote on the revised plan Saturday. 

“Yes, it has a chance to survive,” McGrady said, responding to a question on Twitter. “ The differences between the Senate’s provisions and the House’s provisions will be negotiated this afternoon.” 

The House version includes the cocktail provision; the Senate’s does not.

As they stand, the bills each draw money from the $3.5-billion pot the federal government sent to North Carolina through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

An eventual compromise would come in proposed committee substitutes for House Bill 1043 and Senate Bill 704. The two chambers would then pass and concur with the respective bills, which appropriate money for myriad items, including funding for universities, medical research, public schools, and tourism.

A provision on Page 61 of the voluminous House bill would authorize the chairman of the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission to allow the sale of mixed drinks to go, including for delivery. The drinks would be packaged in a container with a secure lid or cap and in a manner designed to prevent consumption without removal of the lid or cap, the bill says. Food must be ordered, and drinks are limited to two servings per meal or food item ordered. The provision would go away with the governor’s emergency declaration.

The N.C. Restaurant & Lodging Association has pushed for the move, noting that many states, including neighboring Virginia, have passed similar measures.

“The restaurant industry has been decimated — more than 300,000 foodservice workers in our state have lost their jobs,” the association writes in an appeal to lawmakers. “Because of social distancing requirements and forced dining room closures, many restaurants are hanging-on for dear life.”

In an email, NCRLA President and CEO Lynn Minges said, “The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association is leading the charge to ask lawmakers to allow restaurants to sell mixed beverages to-go and with food delivery during the pandemic state of emergency. This temporary measure would provide an additional revenue stream to help restaurants that are already struggling through dining room closures and are suffering financially.”

Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, has long advocated for reasoned reform in the way North Carolina governs alcohol.

“Allowing to-go mixed drinks is a common-sense change,” Sanders says. “It’s a popular provision in other states, and it can give a boost to restaurants right now that are forced to be takeout-only. Under current law, you can buy individual bottles of beer and wine and obtain beer in growlers to-go. It’s been six weeks since people have been able to have someone mix them a cocktail.”

House Majority Leader Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, on Twitter applauded McGrady and Rep. James Boles, R-Moore, for guiding the measure into the House bill. Bole and McGrady chair the House ABC committee, a fact Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, emphasized when a couple of lawmakers, citing worries over drinking and driving and domestic violence, spoke against the move in a committee meeting. 

Sen. Jay Chaudari, D-Wake, on Wednesday tried to slip an amendment into S.B. 704, but was persuaded to withdraw it.