COVID-19

Takeout cocktails have saved many businesses. Some states want to make them permanent offerings.

Kristin Schwab Jun 25, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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A bartender sells a frozen margarita to go in New York City. Offering alcohol for takeout has helped keep restaurants and bars afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
COVID-19

Takeout cocktails have saved many businesses. Some states want to make them permanent offerings.

Kristin Schwab Jun 25, 2020
A bartender sells a frozen margarita to go in New York City. Offering alcohol for takeout has helped keep restaurants and bars afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
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My local taco shop in Brooklyn has a cash register right at the door, where workers sling icy cold margaritas in clear plastic cups. Pretty soon, the cocktails are in the hands of customers and on their way to homes under lockdown.

To be clear, it’s not legal to drink alcohol on the street in New York. But those drinks, and the concept of happy hour to go, is keeping a lot of restaurants and bars alive. Nationally, the sector has lost around 4 million jobs since the pandemic hit.

“It is the atomic unit of our current business situation,” said Joshua Stylman, co-founder of Threes Brewing in Brooklyn.

A lot of the business relies on not just sales at its two bars, but also on selling draft beer to other bars. That was a problem under pandemic conditions. “We wound up pouring a lot of beer down the drain,” Stylman said. “But we also got as much in the packaging calendar as we humanly could.”

The brewery built an online ordering site in three days and was able to bring back 60% of its staff. 

According to the National Restaurant Association, these kinds of rehiring numbers have driven more than 30 states to create takeout drink laws. “And you’re seeing certain states start to talk about it from a permanent perspective,” said Mike Whatley, the association’s vice president of state and local affairs.

The industry had been pushing for this even before COVID-19 hit because takeout and delivery have become a bigger part of the equation. Plus, alcohol has high profit margins.

But it’s not easy to pivot to takeout only. Kylie North owns a cocktail bar called Water Bear Bar with her wife, Laura Keeler, in Boise, Idaho. They had to buy equipment to can their fizzy drinks and create a menu that works for to-go orders. “There’s only gonna be a few drinks that actually taste good enough to put our brand’s sticker on it,” North said.

During the pandemic, takeout sales are bringing in a fifth of what the bar made on a normal night. Not ideal, but enough to bring back half the staff. “It’s not just coming in and cleaning,” she said. “It’s getting to use that creative side and be a bartender.”

And with Idaho’s cases of coronavirus rising, North is looking to make to-go drinks a bigger — and possibly permanent — piece of her business.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Will the federal government extend the extra COVID-19 unemployment benefits?

It’s still unclear. Congress and President Donald Trump are deciding whether to extend the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits workers are getting because of the pandemic. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia believes the program should not be extended, and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the additional money is disincentivizing some workers from returning to their jobs. Democrats want to keep providing the money until January.

As states lift restrictions, are people going back to stores and restaurants?

States have relaxed their restrictions, and many of us have relaxed, too. Some people have started to make exceptions for visiting restaurants, if only for outdoor dining. Some are only going to places they trust are being extra cautious. But no one we’ve talked to has really gone back to normal. People just aren’t quite there yet.

Will surges in COVID-19 cases mean a return to lockdowns?

In many areas where businesses are reopening, cases of COVID-19 are trending upwards, causing some to ask if the lockdowns were lifted too soon, and if residents and businesses might have to go through it all again. So, how likely is another lockdown, of some sort? The answer depends on who you ask. Many local officials are now bullish about keeping businesses open to salvage their economies. Health experts, though, are concerned.

You can find answers to more questions here.

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