“If it’s six months from now we are still going to be recovering from COVID. Even if it’s a year from now, we’re still going to be recovering from COVID.”
On July 20, 2020, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law permitting takeout cocktails in Massachusetts. The temporary measure allowed for carryout cocktails in conjunction with food until either the end of February 2021, or the cessation of the state of emergency declared by the governor on March 10, 2020.
Now, more than a year into that state of emergency, the Mass hospitality industry is calling on lawmakers to extend cocktails to-go. Chris Almeida, who works as the beverage program director for the Tasty in Plymouth and serves as a state organizer for the Thirst Group, a nonprofit advocating on behalf of independent bars and restaurants, believes an extension will help the battered industry plan ahead as it recovers.
“As soon as the state of emergency is lifted you say goodbye to cocktails to-go, and we don’t know when that is going to be,” Almeida says. “If it’s six months from now we are still going to be recovering from COVID. Even if it’s a year from now, we’re still going to be recovering from COVID.”
As a remedy, State Sen. Diana DiZoglio has proposed Bill SD.1594, An act to continue expanded take-out/delivery options in response to COVID-19, which would extend takeout cocktails until two years after the state of emergency’s end date. DiZoglio believes the extension is necessary to counteract the many ways COVID-19 and its accompanying restrictions have harmed the Bay State’s bar and restaurant industry.
“Local restaurateurs that I speak to on a regular basis have told me they’re still not caught up, still worried financially, and still worried that they may have to shut their doors,” she says. “And this is even with grants being made and PPP loans being available. They’re still struggling tremendously.”
As the owner of the East Boston whiskey bar the Quiet Few, Josh Weinstein has experienced the benefits of takeout cocktails first-hand. “To-go cocktails impacted us both monetarily and mentally. At the time the amendment passed, we only had four seats outside. And with no real planning for COVID, we were sitting on dead money in the form of liquor bottles, just collecting dust on the back bar. The ability to offer to-go cocktails allowed us to move that stock, boosting our sales without spending more money on product.”
Weinstein says a continuation of the measure would help his business adapt to the still-uncertain future.
“It allows us flexibility,” he says. “This past year has felt like a boxing match. We’re constantly bobbing and weaving. And we’ve learned that we don’t know what’s around the corner. Things look like they’re getting better, but another surge may be the straw that breaks more businesses. So, at the very least, it helps us plan.”
In addition, Weinstein sees a positive to take-out cocktails that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
“Mentally, it gave our bartenders the opportunity to do what they do—bartend. They could create new cocktails to help us move product. They could pair new drinks with food specials. No longer were they handing a bag of food across a six-foot separation… It takes a certain kind of person who decides hospitality is the career for them. This bill helped our staff connect back to that person.”
On March 18, DiZoglio brought extended takeout cocktails up for a vote as an amendment to S.35, An act financing improvements to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and providing relief to employers and workers in the Commonwealth. Her amendment was rejected by a vote of 30 to nine. She now plans to advance the measure as a standalone bill in the form of SD.1594.
“This was one attempt to raise the issue. I will be raising it as many times as is necessary until our Senate president decides to hear our restaurants on this and take action,” DiZoglio says.
The push for prolonged takeout cocktails is being fought in other states around the country as well. Of the 33 states that have allowed them temporarily, three—Iowa, Kentucky and Ohio—have made them permanent (Washington DC, which adopted takeout cocktails on a temporary basis, has also granted them permanency). Virginia has extended takeout cocktails through June 2022, and Maine now allows them until September of that year. Similar bills are working their way through other state legislatures; a measure permitting takeout cocktails through the whole of 2022 was passed by the Rhode Island House on March 4, and now awaits a vote by its senate.
In 2020, Massachusetts was the 30th state in the nation to allow takeout cocktails, and the final state in New England to do so. Now, as the Commonwealth’s bars and restaurants face a recovery that could be measured in years, not months, local industry is hoping that their state won’t again lag behind.