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Without Mixed Drinks To-Go Rule, Restaurants And Bars Prepare For Slower Summer Recovery

A bartender works at El Serrano in Lancaster on April 2, 2021..jpg
Kate Landis
/
WITF
A bartender works at El Serrano in Lancaster on April 2, 2021.

Restaurants and bars will likely not be able to sell mixed drinks to-go this summer, despite many state lawmakers who support extending the pandemic-era rule.

Before the emergency rule expired a few weeks ago, bartenders could mix customers a boozy drink and send them on their way with it in a sealed container. Industry groups like the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association said it helped hundreds of them stay afloat when dining in wasn’t allowed.

“It was a lifeline during the emergency declaration, it’s something consumers enjoyed and it was done safely,” Executive Director Chuck Moran said. “Why not allow that to continue?”

One of the lawmakers who supports making that practice permanent is state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny). He said he was ready to help a measure to do that clear the Senate last week, but that was before he was told by Senate Republicans that the bill would be put on ice until at least the fall session that starts in September.

“The bill would pass overwhelmingly as it is,” Costa said. “We’re just disappointed that our Republican colleagues don’t want to entertain this.”

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said the decision to hold off on a vote had to do with whether shops should get to keep selling alcohol at the temporary seating areas they set up during the pandemic.

“The Senate will not advance the measure until we are able to ensure the restaurant/outdoor dining measures can be kept in place with certainty,” she said.

This is the latest snag the proposal has hit in the weeks since cocktails-to-go were made illegal again.

The first was over whether beer distributors and other liquor licensees should get to sell pre-mixed cocktails in a can, known as ready-to-drink cocktails. Sen. Mike Regan (R-Cumberland), who chairs a key state Senate committee, allowed an amendment making those drinks legal to be added to the larger mixed drinks to-go bill. He argued allowing those shops to sell their own version of a mixed drink to-go would help them meet demand.

“The way in which liquor is sold in Pennsylvania is evolving, and consumers want both better selection and more convenience when purchasing products,” Regan said earlier this month.

Democrats, including Gov. Tom Wolf, argued such a move would make it easier to eventually privatize the state liquor industry. The House ultimately tossed that idea out and sent it back to the Senate.

The latest dust-up over rules about outdoor seating boils down to whether alcoholic drinks should be allowed to flow outside. Before the pandemic, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board allowed bars and restaurants to make seating extensions to their properties as long as they applied for it and paid a fee. Those rules were waived while Gov. Wolf’s emergency declaration was in place, which allowed many establishments to set up new outdoor seats and serve alcohol at them.

Now that the old rules are back in place, the Liquor Control Board told owners that any temporary seats would no longer be considered licensed for alcohol. The mixed drinks to-go legislation would have allowed booze at outdoor seating again and would have kept the fee waiver in place.

Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association President John Longstreet said Senate Republican leaders should have held a vote on the bill last week. He called the delay a “devastating blow” to an industry that is slowly returning to life as we knew it.

“Our industry, yet again, is caught in the middle of political posturing and empty promises, when all we are looking for are simple tools to help propel our recovery,” he said.

Bars and restaurants are now able to seat as many customers as they could before the pandemic, in addition to those they can seat in temporary outdoor settings. But Chuck Moran said bars and restaurants will be missing out on as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars in summer alcohol sales. All of that, he said, is money owners could be using to help themselves recover from the pandemic.

“If they were fully recovered financially, they might be OK,” Moran said. “But after a year of significant loss many were looking forward to several parts of HB 1154 [the cocktails-to-go bill] that would have helped with that recovery.”

On Monday, Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) called on Senate leadership to hold a vote on the cocktails-to-go bill before the end of the month. Normally that would be impractical for state lawmakers who already recessed for the summer break, but the Senate still has virtual voting rules in place that would make a remote session possible.

“We cannot stand by when we have the opportunity to quickly and easily do something that will help our small employers,” Martin said.