What started as a lifeline to New York state bars and restaurants is turning into a high-tension wire for New York City’s wine and liquor store owners. Governor Kathy Hochul is pushing for legislation to permanently allow bars and restaurants to sell drinks-to-go to support on-premise economic recovery. “When the former governor came out with cocktails-to-go, we had no problem with that,” says Jeff Saunders, president of The Retailers Alliance and owner of McCabes Wine & Spirits in Manhattan. “But it turned into bottles-to-go and anyone who had an on-premise wine and liquor license was now case stacking wine and liquor. The problem is all of those on-premise licensees have now turned into on- and off-premise.”
Former governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order on March 7th, 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, allowing bars and restaurants to sell beverage alcohol in sealed bottles or cans and cocktails-to-go in takeout cups with lids as part of transactions that also included food. “Let them serve their cocktails, but once the bottles got involved that was the end of the story,” Saunders says. “Any legislation with bottles will be a problem.”
Drinks-to-go were a vital revenue stream for bars and restaurants during the pandemic. The measure was extended but ended Friday, June 25th, 2021. Drinks-to-go legislation was introduced last year but died in the state assembly. Some lawmakers accused wine and liquor store owners of using scare tactics against the bill. “We were unfairly taken advantage of,” Saunders says. “They forgot about New York City. Liquor stores in the suburbs were up because everybody fled this city. My business on the upper east side was off 72%.”
When venues started selling bottles for carryout, it added insult to injury. “On top of my businesses being off, I have all these on-premise places selling bottles,” Saunders says. “Some people had to close. People are still digging out of what happened.”
Public safety is also a concern. “On Second Avenue, there were people walking around with drinks in take-out-cups up and down the street,” Saunders adds. “It was out of control.”
Steve Malito, a lobbyist for New York’s Metropolitan Package Store Association (MPSA), voiced worry about issues of safety and the effect on the economy. “A lot of legislators said there was public drinking and intoxication in the streets all over their districts, and as you can imagine, most constituents did not want to see that continue,” he notes.
When the original executive order was issued temporarily allowing to-go-drinks, MPSA supported it, but the organization doesn’t back the proposal to make carryout cocktails permanent. “Many lawmakers seem to think that our mom-and-pop stores have been booming during the pandemic,” Malito says. “In actuality, just as restaurant business is down in places like Midtown Manhattan, liquor stores are also down.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 16 states and the District of Columbia made drinks-to-go permanent, and 15 others extended carryout cocktails through legislation, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). New York state wine and liquor store retailers are waiting anxiously for the next round of drinks-to-go legislation to be introduced. “We appreciate Governor Hochul’s efforts to support the hospitality industry and ask that any proposals carefully consider the impact on independent wine and liquor stores,” Saunders adds.