Cut off: Cocktails to-go saga stalls in Senate

Cocktails to-go

Cocktails to-go Shutterstock

It might be time to pour one out for cocktails-to-go sticking around this summer. 

The bill to allow restaurants and bars to sell cocktails-to-go stalled in the state Senate last week after the House agreed to pass a stripped down version of a bill that dropped broader liquor privatization efforts. 

House Bill 1154, which originally received bipartisan support, faced Democratic opposition and a potential veto by Gov. Tom Wolf after it was amended in the Senate to include language that allowed any liquor licensee to sell ready-to-drink cocktails. The amended version narrowly passed through the Senate as it faced opposition from Democrats who saw it as an attempt to expand liquor privatization. 

The saga continued into last week amid budget negotiations, as the House couldn’t garner the support to pass the amended version. The House then passed HB 1154 without the ready-to-drink provision, but the Senate failed to come to agreement before passing the state budget, leaving the bill behind as they departed Harrisburg until September.

“We knew that [provision] was going to be problematic, because a lot of people viewed that as an attempt to start privatizing the state's liquor industry,” Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, told City & State. “So we kind of saw it as a poison pill, and it would have killed our cocktails to-go.”

State Sen. Scott Martin, a Republican who supported the ready-to-drink provision, sent a letter to Senate leadership Monday urging it to call senators into session to consider the bill. But with a rule allowing senators to vote remotely expiring on Wednesday, it seems unlikely that a vote will happen.

“During the pandemic, we provided a lifeline for restaurants and taverns by allowing them to offer cocktails to-go and serve alcohol outdoors on their premises,” Martin said in a statement. “This was critical in dealing with many of the Governor’s restrictions on bar service and indoor dining. The need for that help has not ended as these employers were some of the hardest impacted by the pandemic over the last 15 months.”

Martin said he remains hopeful that Senate leadership will recognize the need as well. “With the warm season upon us, we should do all we can to assist these employers in regaining their footing for their comeback,” he said. 

Restaurants and bars were permitted to sell cocktails for off-premise consumption, as well as to expand outdoor dining, during Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency order. Armed with new constitutional powers, state lawmakers voted on June 10 to terminate Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency declaration, along with any regulatory waivers that accompanied it. Lawmakers moved to keep many of the waivers in place, but they couldn’t come to an agreement on cocktails to-go, forcing the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) to deem them illegal again.

The delays were centered-around an amendment that would have allowed beer distributors, grocery stores, and other retailers to sell mixed drinks to-go. As it stands, only state liquor stores are able to sell canned cocktail-style items, so the amendment would have diminished the state-run system’s grasp on liquor sales.

The new bill would also allow taverns, restaurants, and hotel bars to continue using temporary extensions to serve liquor in outdoor spaces through 2022, and permit liquor licensees to sell any remaining inventory after closing their doors for good. Ultimately, those discussions took a back seat to the budget and HB 1154 was left in the Senate Rules and Executive Nominations Committee. 

Moran expressed disappointment for the potential losses for businesses this summer. He said about 66% of his members’ revenue comes from alcohol sales, and that there are still many people who are not comfortable drinking in a bar or would rather take a cocktail to-go to enjoy at home. 

“It was really just unfair to the industry to just suddenly stop it and then go home for the summer, basically without refreshing the matter,” Moran said. “Senate Republicans got a lot of criticism [from tavern association members] after what happened last week.”

The bill was great news to the restaurant industry, particularly as the Commonwealth comes out of the pandemic and outdoor spaces are thriving in the warm weather. Without the pandemic waivers in place, cocktails to-go will no longer be allowed. The PLCB will still allow outdoor alcohol sales, but bars and restaurants must now apply for permanent permits to continue operating outdoor expansion of premises allowed during the emergency declaration and the board will review applications on a case-by-case basis.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there’s been no word if Senate leadership will take up Martin’s request.