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New laws keep alcohol-to-go on the menu after the pandemic

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A pint of beer is served through a row of taps.

According to one expert, "2020 was the most important year for alcohol since the end of Prohibition." Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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Alcohol-to-go has been a lifeline for many bars and restaurants during the pandemic, especially when businesses were relying solely on takeout orders. It’s currently legal in 39 states, and many have created or are creating legislation that makes takeout drinks permanent. Nebraska and Washington, D.C., are the latest places to sign on.

This weekend, Nancy Bambara at DZ Restaurants is banking on a classic pairing: Memorial Day and barbecue. “And you can pair it with a bucket of beer, you can pair it with a bottle of wine,” she said.

Themed to-go meals have been really popular at her restaurants in Saratoga Springs, New York, during the pandemic. And even though capacity restrictions have mostly lifted, takeout orders make up 20% of the restaurant group’s sales, compared to 2% pre-pandemic.

“Which is why,” said Mike Whatley at the National Restaurant Association, “it’s really important that restaurants be allowed to continue alcoholic beverages to go.”

He also said the takeout trend is here to stay, and restaurants cannot afford to lose high-margin alcohol profits that have gone with those to-go meals this past year.

Since the pandemic started, permanent laws have passed in 13 states, with bills active in at least six others. The rules vary. Some require food purchases, others impose drink limits or mandate tamper-proof containers. So don’t expect the more relaxed laws to turn Main Streets into Bourbon Street, the New Orleans icon famous for allowing people to carry open cups of adult beverages.

Still, according to Jarrett Dieterle, who researches alcohol regulation at R Street, a policy think tank, “2020 was the most important year for alcohol since the end of Prohibition.”

He thinks these laws could make it easier for distilleries and breweries to ship their products across state lines. “You know, me in Virginia, can get my favorite [India pale ale] from a craft brewery in rural northern Michigan,” Dieterle said.

It’s something wine lovers have been able to do for years.

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