Regulation

Restaurant Alcohol-To-Go Sparks Change In US Public Drinking Laws

Public drinking has been historically frowned upon from a legal perspective in America. Those looking to consume alcohol outside a private home, bar or restaurant have had to typically either pour their drinks into unmarked containers or slide them into an always-classy brown paper bag — until now. With COVID-19 shutting down bars, pubs, taprooms and distilleries nationwide, local regulators (and police departments) have started taking a somewhat more lax approach to the issue.

For example, The Associated Press recently reported that 33 states and the District of Columbia have temporarily lifted laws that prevented restaurants and bars from selling cocktails to go. Restaurants that can now legally put drinks on the carryout menu report that’s helped them rehire bartenders, pay rent and keep their customer relationships alive and well-lubricated.

“This isn’t going to fix everything, but it is going to fix something,” Julia Momose, owner of Chicago Japanese-style cocktail bar Kumiko, told the AP. Momose helped actively lobby Illinois officials to allow restaurants to serve carryout cocktails in addition to the beer and wine they were already permitted to serve.

Carryout cocktail rules vary by state or municipality even now. Most require customers to buy food and not just drinks and mandate sealed lids, and some even require consumers to transport cocktails in their cars’ trunks.

But beyond such official rule changes, reports have also been increasingly emerging that many police have simply decided that with everything else going on, enforcing open-container laws doesn’t hold much of a spot on their agenda.

“It seems like everyone's over prohibitions on public drinking,” Amanda Schuster, a New Yorker who writes about drinks, told the BBC. "It's as if people have the attitude that 'no one's going to arrest us for this when they have other things to do.’”

That attitude that seems to have spread throughout U.S. cities as consumers find more reasons during the warm weather to drink in public — picnicking being key among them, according to NPR.

“We were hungry and wanting to get some food, but we're not quite comfortable with sitting down at an actual restaurant,"  Washington, D.C., resident Ari Davis told NPR as he and Grace Guerrero Ramirez picnicked on carry-out pizza and wine in a local park.

And though Davis and Guerrero Ramirez took the trouble to conceal their wine in water bottles, many people dining and drinking in the park that night didn't bother. NPR said uncorked wine bottles were a common site across picnic blankets.

But despite the visible increase in public alcohol consumption, the network said D.C. has seen a 42 percent decrease in arrests for open-container laws this summer. When asked why, the Metropolitan Police Department told NRP that it’s focusing on stopping COVID-19’s spread.

Open-container laws are a primarily American institution. For instance, public alcohol consumption is legal in many European cities and always has been.

The question now is whether America will take on a more continental attitude toward open drinking when the pandemic is over or if the rules will revert to their pre-COVID form.

Many restaurateurs would rather see the new rules remain in place. Washington, D.C. restaurant owner Mary Chersevani told Eater that alcohol sales currently account for about 20 percent of her business on a busy day like Saturday — far from the 50-50 split she saw pre-pandemic. But she said being able to serve alcohol for carryout has been critical in keeping customers engaged — particularly those who aren't interested in resurfacing publicly just yet.

She believes that in small, walkable cities like Washington, carry-out cocktails will have legs that will carry them far past the COVID crisis. “I don’t know if everyone is going to want to keep [these laws], but for my fast-casual business, this could work really well for me in the future,” Chersevani said.

True, some critics want the rules reversed as soon as possible for the sake of public safety. But other observers note that genies can be a trick to get back into their (liquor) bottles.

With many Americans now used to the experience of being able to carry out a cocktail and drink it in a public park, consumers might hesitate to go back to the old way of drinking. That makes some politicians disinclined to force the issue.

For example, Texas has already extended its carry-out cocktails authorization past the original expirations date, and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has strongly implied via a tweet the old rule might never come back.

"From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever," he wrote.

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