Mass. restaurateurs clamoring for green light on cocktails to go

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Restaurants in Massachusetts have been allowed to welcome diners back to their patios and dining rooms, but some restaurateurs still have their eye on a relief bill that's pending before the state Senate.

Passed unanimously by the House on June 2, the bill includes several measures aimed at buoying an industry that has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and public health restrictions. It proposes to cap third-party delivery service fees, waive penalties and interest for late meals tax payment, and authorize the sale of cocktails with takeout and delivery food orders.

Josh Weinstein, owner of the East Boston bar The Quiet Few, said that while he has more than 120 liquor bottles "sitting around on our back bar collecting dust right now," he's been watching as friends in New York have been able to sell to-go cocktails for weeks.

"They're going to make it through this because of frozen margaritas," he said. "It seems silly to say, but it's so simple."

As COVID-19 cases began to mount in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker in March issued an emergency order that limited restaurants to takeout and delivery service only.

Restaurants were cleared to resume outdoor dining when the state entered phase two of its reopening plan on June 8, and to offer indoor dining service on June 22. However, new social distancing requirements limit the number of customers who can be served in a restaurant's existing space, and not all establishments have the outdoor space to expand their footprints.

Bars that do not offer seated food service are part of the fourth and final phase of the state's reopening plan, which involves having a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 available.

Weinstein said his bar, with a 49-person capacity, is "not rushing to get people seated indoors" because of health concerns and instead is open three days a week for takeout food sales, with four available seats outside.

Working through what he described as "some late-night tired math," Weinstein said selling 10 to 15 cocktails per day would have covered his bar's June rent.

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"I'm guessing we'd do a lot more, but just being super conservative about what we might sell, that's our rent, that's a salary," he said. "It's a lot, and it allows bartenders to be bartenders and allows us to do our thing."

Weinstein said he's been advocating for the Senate to pass the restaurant relief bill, and his bar's patrons and neighbors have been "sending emails and calling legislators to sort of push this thing through."

Other bars — State Park in Cambridge and Bar 25 in Ayer among them — have been encouraging their social media followers to contact legislators as well, and an online "Cocktails for Commonwealth" petition has more than 700 signatures.

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The bill has been before the Senate Ways and Means Committee since June 4.

Senate President Karen Spilka told the News Service last week that the bill is one the Senate is "clearly looking at."

"We've been having conversations with the restaurant folks and others, and that is actively being looked at," she said. "We're getting feedback, we're pulling together information and possibly other areas that we may want to add to it, but that is clearly on our radar and we are working on it."

Asked about the House bill on Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker expressed support for its passage. He said he didn't know why it appears to have stalled out but attributed the lack of movement to "a disagreement of some sort between the branches."

"We supported the restaurant bill when it was originally proposed, and that's one of those elements I would hope would make it through the process," Baker said. "In fairness, the Legislature, despite the difficulty of the framework through which they have to operate now, has passed a lot of legislation that's provided significant support to many businesses and a lot of communities around Massachusetts over the course of the past 90 days or so, but we certainly support the restaurant bill and think it would be a good thing."

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Earlier on in the pandemic, when the restrictions on restaurant service were newer, the House and Senate passed a law — signed by Baker on April 3 — allowing establishments holding liquor licenses to sell beer and wine with takeout or delivery food orders.

The House bill extends that authorization until the end of February 2021, and adds in the ability to sell to-go cocktails with food orders. The drinks would need to be in sealed containers and customers would be limited to 64 ounces of mixed drinks per transaction.

House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said in early June that lawmakers wanted to see how to-go beer and wine sales went before green-lighting takeout cocktails as well.

"So far I think it's something that the restaurants have certainly appreciated," Michlewitz said at the time. "It's not the be all and end all, and it hasn't saved the restaurant industry to say the least, but it's certainly something they've been appreciative of."

Weinstein said he hasn't seen much benefit from to-go beer and wine sales, because the different markups and pricing structures between restaurants and package stores mean his bar would need to dramatically lower its beer prices to match what a customer would pay at the shop across the street.

"Anybody who's going to order beer from us is sort of doing it for charity or out of immense convenience," he said.

Weinstein said people ask him "all the time" about to-go cocktail sales.

"It's really disappointing that this thing has languished for three weeks now when it was passed so overwhelmingly by the House, and I just don't get it," he said.


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