Stalemate breaks on mixed drinks to go for Pennsylvania bars and restaurants

  • Charles Thompson/PennLive

(Harrisburg) — It looks like Pennsylvania’s bar and restaurants are on their way to regaining the authority to sell take-out margaritas, screwdrivers, fuzzy navels or any other of a number of mixed drinks.

The state House voted 170-31 Thursday to pass a stripped down version of a bill that dropped broader liquor privatization efforts and moved the drinks-to-go effort back to the state Senate for final adoption. The bill permits taverns, restaurants and hotel bars that are selling take-out food, to also sell sealed containers of up to 64 ounces of mixed drinks to go.

The sales would be permitted up until 11 p.m., and any to-go containers being picked by motorists are supposed to be transported in the vehicle’s trunk or “some other area of the vehicle… that is not occupied by the driver or passengers.”

Drinks to go were initially intended as a lifeline to the hard-hit restaurant and tavern industry that was among the first businesses to be closed down last year because of the coronavirus outbreak, and then became among the last to fully reopen as the pandemic restrictions started to ease.

The relaxed rules were in effect as long as the state pandemic emergency declaration remained in effect, but that ended earlier this month by action of the state legislature. In the short term, that’s also meant a return to pre-pandemic days where if you want a mixed drink from a bar, restaurant or hotel with a liquor license, you have to drink it on the spot.

Lawmakers aimed to quickly make the drinks-to-go provision permanent, but the legislation became snarled earlier this month when Sen. Mike Regan, R-Cumberland / York counties, inserted a provision that would have allowed virtually all businesses selling alcohol to also offer pre-mixed cocktails.

That was not as simple as it sounded.

Currently, the state-owned liquor stores have the exclusive franchise in Pennsylvania to sell spirits-based ready-to-drink market such as pre-mixed margaritas, rum punch and pina coladas ready to pour over ice. State stores also can sell wine-based ready-to-drink products, which grocery and convenience stores with licenses to sell wine and beer can also sell in limited quantities along with malt and brewed beverage-based ready-to-drink products such as flavored seltzers.

Regan’s addition opened up a predictable war with the unions that represent employees of Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor stores, and brought veto threats from Gov. Tom Wolf, who had pledged to the unions after the limited beer and wine privatization of 2017 that he would not change their market a second time in his tenure.

In hopes of ending the battle and giving bar and restaurant owners back a provision they badly want before they recess for the summer, House leaders Thursday voted to strip the bill back to its original intent, and setting the ready-to-drink issue aside for another day.

All of this met with the approval of the bill’s original sponsor, Rep. Kurt Masser, a Republican from Northumberland County.

“My most important goal was to do something for the industry that really suffered under COVID,” Masser said Thursday. “I believe in the RTDs and I still believe in the RTDs; however, we just didn’t have the votes here in the caucus to get it across the goal line. I think that’s something to be revisited because like a lot of Pennsylvania liquor laws, they’re outdated and need to be addressed.”

He said allowing cocktails to go to remain on the menu means a lot to the restaurant industry as a whole.

“Every restaurant is different. To me, in my restaurant, it doesn’t mean a lot. But when I introduced this bill I found out just how much support it has across the state. A lot of restaurants have profited from this at a time when they desperately needed every dollar.”

Shortly after the House vote, the trade group representing Pennsylvania’s restaurant operators praised the House’s action, and urged the Senate to get the bill to Gov. Wolf’s desk.

“The Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association thanks the House for recognizing the urgency needed to reinstate cocktails to-go and the expanded premise for outdoor dining for our industry,” said John Longstreet, president and CEO of the PRLA. “While PRLA continues to support canned cocktails, this bill has bipartisan support and the governor has expressed his willingness to sign it in this form. We urge the Senate to swiftly concur with the House and get the bill to the Governor’s desk immediately.”


This story originally appeared at pennlive.com.

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