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June 29, 2021

To-go cocktails off the menu in Pennsylvania – at least through the summer

Legislators failed to act on a bill legalizing the pandemic practice that helped many businesses stay afloat

Government Alcohol
Pennsylvania cocktails-to-go legislation Joe Simon/Enquirer

The sale of to-go cocktails, like the one shown in the file photo above, was approved in Pennsylvania last May as part of an effort to help out bars, restaurants and hotels with liquor licenses that were struggling at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To-go cocktails will remain off menus in Pennsylvania – at least through the summer. 

Another effort to make the popular pandemic practice permanent fell short when lawmakers failed to act on a bill allowing restaurants, bars and hotels to offer your favorite mixed drinks to go on the final day of the General Assembly's June session. 

The measure, House Bill 1154, passed the House on June 24 and was stripped of a Republican-backed amendment that pushed Democrats, including Gov. Tom Wolf, to withdraw support earlier this month. It was sent to the Senate Rules Committee, but a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward on June 25 told PennLive.com that deliberations will be put off until legislators reconvene in September.  

Reacting to the news, John Longstreet of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association called the tabling of HB 1154 "another devastating blow to the Commonwealth's restaurant industry."

"This bill has broad bipartisan support in the House and by the Administration. It also provided a clear pathway to assist the industry by extending two provisions that helped sustain the industry at the height of the pandemic as well as additional items that will help the industry as we enter the recovery phase," said Longstreet, the association's president and CEO, in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

"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."

The sale of to-go cocktails in Pennsylvania was approved on a temporary basis at the outset of the pandemic and banned when the state's coronavirus emergency order expired in June. Any licensed establishment that had experienced a 25% decline in average monthly sales could sell beverages between 4 to 64 ounces in containers with a secure lid before 11 p.m. 

Chuck Moran with the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association called the practice a "lifeline" that helped many businesses "keep their heads above water" when other aid was not yet available.

"It was a proven success with both licensees and patrons responsibly enjoying this new product," Moran, the association's executive director, said in a statement last week. "Frankly, for our industry, it was one of the innovations of the year that it made us wonder why they couldn't do this before."

HB 1154 appeared to have a clear path to becoming law when it passed the House with bipartisan support in May. The measure also allowed temporary permits that let licensed businesses serve liquor in outdoor spaces to be extended through Dec. 31, 2022.

When it reached the Senate, however, Republicans on the Law and Justice Committee amended HB 1154 to allow grocery stores, beer distributors, and other retailers to sell liquor-based canned cocktails — such as pre-mixed margaritas, Jack Daniel's canned Whiskey & Seltzer and more.

After a loosening of the state's liquor laws was amended into HB 1154, a member of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star that the group feared a possible veto and further delays to getting the measure passed. Wolf said in a June 15 statement that he would sign HB 1154 in its original form and called on legislators to send a "clean" bill to his desk.

Before that could happen, the results from May's primary election were certified, cementing victory for a Republican-backed ballot measure that limits the governor's power to extend emergency declarations. With both houses of the General Assembly voting June 8 to end Wolf's COVID-19 disaster declaration, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control board began informing licensees that to-go cocktails were off the menu immediately after the election results were certified.

The abrupt outlawing of carryout cocktails was a buzzkill for many bars and restaurants in the state. Doobies, a fixture in Philadelphia's Fitler Square neighborhood for decades, known for its David Bowie memorabilia, took to Instagram on June 17 to announce it would be temporarily closing because the bar was no longer permitted to sell cocktails to go, which it said accounted for between "70-80%" of business.

"It's what has gotten us through the pandemic," the bar's Instagram post says.

Photos posted to Doobies' Facebook page on Friday show its new floor nearly complete. The next day, the bar hosted a private wedding reception – "the first folks in Doobies in 15 months." No reopening date has been set; Patti Brett, whose family has owned the bar since 1978, said on Facebook that she still needs to find and train staff members. 

Until then, the bar will try to get by without what had been its primary income source for the past year. 

After HB 1154 fizzled out, State Sen. Nikil Saval on Wednesday tweeted that he and Sens. Wayne D. Fontana and Jim Brewster are working on legislation that will make to-go cocktails permanent and extend other provisions that fell under Pennsylvania's coronavirus emergency order. 

"The hospitality industry has been decimated under COVID, and we’re committed to fighting on behalf of workers and small businesses throughout our state," said Saval, a Democrat from Philadelphia, in the tweet. 

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia as of late June had passed laws making the sale of to-go cocktails permanent, according to CNBC:  Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin. 

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