PHOTOS BY DEREK KOUYOUMJIAN
“Creative attempts to reopen businesses have forged new service models, but there are still innumerable hurdles for those who want to drink out at a time like this.”
Massachusetts has enjoyed a recent wave of amended laws around beer, wine, and liquor sales for both on-premise consumption and off-premise sales.
Two changes in July were of particular importance. One freed wholesalers and brewers of their distribution contracts, if they wish to terminate them. Passed on July 18, the measure allows smaller brewers to end arrangements at will, so that “businesses will be free to find new partners to sell their beer at stores, bars, or restaurants,” as reported by Kate Bernot of Good Beer Hunting.
The other standout bill was approved by Gov. Charlie Baker on July 20 and allows restaurants to sell cocktails to go. Following the initial COVID-19 outbreak, certain establishments were almost immediately allowed more flexibility to serve wine and beer to go, but not spirits. But after several months of intense lobbying and a public campaign by restaurateurs and spirit makers, the governor relented.
Meanwhile, outdoor dining remains the norm across Mass, with outfits like Night Shift Brewing adjusting routines to open spots for exterior imbibing; the summer season Owl’s Nest locations along Storrow Drive, in Allston, and on the Esplanade opened in early August. Though many satellite taprooms, such as Trillium’s beer garden on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, postponed opening this year, there’s still seemingly more outdoor action than usual (you can still find the Trillium crew at their open-air Landmark Center location in Fenway).
As some regulations loosen, others appear to have become more restrictive. In early August, Baker declared that “bars masquerading as restaurants need to be closed.” Soon after, rules were introduced noting, “Potato chips, pretzels, and other pre-packaged or manufactured foods do not constitute food ‘prepared on-site.’” As of Aug 11, food must accompany any alcoholic beverage purchased at establishments that serve on-premises.
Given these patterns, there are probably more laws coming in the future. Creative attempts to reopen businesses have forged new service models, but there are still innumerable hurdles for those who want to drink out at a time like this. All of which begs the question: What if we got rid of the red tape? And, What would Boston look like if we allowed open containers or public drinking?
Ran Duan owns several restaurants and cocktail bars throughout the Bay State. With forced closed doors, previous to the official reopening phases, his team pivoted to packaging nonalcoholic mixers for takeout. He says that it was a lifeline revenue source at the time, and successful enough that they branched out into distribution. Duan is also one of the few people to open a business during the pandemic—Ivory Pearl, a seafood-focused restaurant in Brookline—and has reservations about open bottles.
“If it weren’t for a pandemic, I would actually be on board,” Duan says. “We still have guests that don’t wear masks. I could only imagine people walking in the streets under the influence. The more responsible and the more sensible people are … would be best for everyone. I wouldn’t want to see another excuse for people not to wear masks.”
Best protocols and practices are critical, for the safety of us all. Nevertheless, leaders and municipalities have left some ambiguity on this issue in that we have all more or less normalized outdoor socialization. As it turns out, a good time can be had with low-risk social distancing, while large gatherings are, well, dangerous and uncalled for. But with people increasingly drawn to outdoor dining, how long until the Greater Boston landscape becomes a BYOB?
Could it ever happen? Or… wait a minute… are we already there?
Jackie Cain, a prolific Boston food and beverage writer, concedes: “Throughout the pandemic I would support places, order takeout, and have a picnic. Most of the time that included beer. I would pretty routinely drink outside with no troubles. I feel more comfortable doing that, and more inclined to do that, then patio service.”
Cain continues, “Whatever would transpire for open container would be a pretty hard road. I think the pushback from different associations would be strong. In April, I was a bit optimistic about an opportunity to see us rebuild some parts of society that we would want to see differently. I am less optimistic about that now, but there was definitely a chance for liquor license reform.
“I don’t think it is a public health problem in terms of overintoxication. It seems that Massachusetts sometimes holds itself back when it comes to the rigidity of these laws.”
Faced with the open container idea, Cain, like others, ponders recent food accompaniment regulations. If the state wants to convince people that ordering food is a COVID concern, then wouldn’t things be worse in terms of people gathering with grub, since they need to inhabit the space longer and have more contact with staff?
“It’s really confusing to know who the gatekeepers are of these rules, let alone how to follow them,” Cain says. Mass, of course, still has regs dating back centuries to old blue laws on the books. In her experience, Cain once worked brunches at a restaurant that opened at 10 am and recalls how they weren’t allowed to sell alcohol for the first hour.
Suzanne Schalow is the CEO and co-founder of Craft Beer Cellar, headquartered in Belmont. As a retail operator she says, “While I generally agree that there are many alcohol laws in place that are long overdue for a change, if not a complete overhaul, going from our world, prepandemic, consisting of ‘no happy hours’ and liquor ID cards to open containers in the streets of Boston seems like a pretty big jump.”
Schalow envisions an alternative that may be more feasible.
“Instead of open container laws in Massachusetts, which might be one of the least likely things to ever happen, a natural next step is for cities and towns to be allowed public drinking spaces, like in parks, town centers, parking lots, etc. I think the term beer garden will do just fine for a visual here, in a communal, safe, open environment.”
In these parts, the beer or booze garden concept seems to be the most equitable for people and businesses. Enforcing a specific open container policy—say, you can drink in Faneuil Hall, but not immediately beyond Quincy Market—would clearly open up new problems for statistically targeted marginalized groups. For any inclination to believe that people who live or literally spend a lot of time on the sidewalk and street drink in public with impunity, there are countless arrests for open container violations.
“These old blue laws are rooted in discrmination and continue to prove to be discriminatory in different ways,” Cain says. “The idea of open container is one small part of the need to overhaul the liquor licensing system in the Commonwealth.”
It’s unclear if permissible public drinking is achievable around here. What is certain, however, is that the food and beverage industry has shown exemplary resilience in the face of the pandemic and has already brought Boston beyond the kinds of outdoor experiences that were previously legally possible.
“Everyone in this Boston restaurant community is just trying to hustle and survive,” Duan says. “I am very proud of those taking the safest measures to do so.”