Laws maintain order. They set standards and settle disputes. They’re meant to serve and protect people. Without them, society would be in chaos.
But laws can also be reactionary, situational, and discretionary.
One of Pennsylvania’s newest laws is the Act 21 of 2020, more commonly referred to as the “cocktails-to-go” law. This piece of legislation, signed into law on May 21, temporarily allows restaurants and taverns with a state-issued liquor license to sell take-out alcoholic beverages to patrons during the COVID-19 crisis.
The law is an attempt by the state to help restaurants stay afloat during the pandemic.
“I hope the intent is to help local restaurants,” said Brian Krick, general manager of the Mt. Gretna Hideway, one local business taking advantage of the new law. “I do think that’s probably why they did it, but also to be politically correct and watch the spread of the coronavirus. It’s been going good, as well as can be expected. It entices people to come in, and they get food, too.”
“I think as a restaurant owner, we were really handcuffed by not being allowed to have people in the building,” said Bobby Angelo of Boyer’s Tavern in Rexmont. “My biggest complaint was not being able to have people sit outside. I think the state may have looked at it like, ‘We’ve got to give the restaurants something. Let’s allow them to sell cocktails to-go.’”
The new rule only applies to taverns, restaurants and hotels which have lost more than 25 percent of their income due to the coronavirus pandemic. The law is set to expire when the disaster emergency ends, or for an individual restaurant when it reaches 60 percent capacity.
“It’s going well,” said Angelo. “It’s a very strange and different time for everyone. It’s how we have to do business now. But it’s definitely helped our liquor-sales number.”
Krick said Mt. Gretna Hideway closed for two weeks before reopening to sell food to-go.
“We didn’t think it would be lucrative because we’re out here in the woods,” Krick said. On Friday, June 5, restaurants were able to seat customers outside, as long as they are properly distanced. For Mt. Gretna Hideway, Krick said, opening for deck season is “the next logical step for getting things back to somewhat normal.”
The new cocktails-to-go law works very well with to-go and curbside pick-up regulations that are already in place: customers can order any mixed drink, wine or beer that an establishment offers. The alcoholic beverages are dispensed in plastic or styrofoam containers and sealed with a piece of tape on top.
There are limits, however, on the amount of alcoholic beverages that can be carried out at one time, and the drinks cannot be transported within the personal space of a vehicle. All of Pennsylvania’s open-container laws remain in place.
“We’re using up liquor we weren’t able to sell when we were closed,” said Krick. “It’s a good step towards actually making money. All of our regulars are anxious to get out here and get back on the deck again.”
“Everything’s served in a plastic cup,” said Angelo. “We can [check] everyone’s ID. We make your drink, put a lid on it and put tape over it. It’s the responsibility of the customer not to access the drink while driving.”
Once customers walk out the door, Angelo elaborated, it’s on them to stow the containers away safely and refrain from breaking the tape before they get home.
From the taverns’ standpoint, cocktails-to-go is a no-brainer. The regulations associated with the new law are relatively easy to follow, they already possess the know-how for producing the product and they’re utilizing resources they already have.
“Before the coronavirus, we were going to serve you a drink in a glass,” said Angelo. “We’ve already had to spend a lot of money on to-go containers. Because we haven’t been serving drinks, we haven’t been able to buy alcohol from the state. If you’re making a drink for someone sitting at the bar, it’s just as easy to make a drink for them to-go”
The hardest part of adapting to the new law, Angelo said, was educating employees.
“When the coronavirus began, we didn’t know a whole lot about it,” said Krick. “We were super concerned about it, deeply concerned about it. I think at this point, we should be ready to go. I hope [the re-opening] really happens. The new cases in Pennsylvania are so limited.”
On March 18, due to state mitigation regulations put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, local taverns like the Mt. Gretna Hideaway and Boyer’s Tavern were forced to close the indoor-seating portions of their businesses and offer to-go and takeout services for their customers. Limited outdoor seating, introduced June 5, was the first sign of state regulations easing up.
Under the next phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan, local establishments will be permitted to offer indoor dining on a limited basis.
“Obviously, our sales are at a very minimum,” said Krick. “The summer time is our busiest time of the year. We stayed open to make some money. Our regulars like coming down to eat our food. We stayed open, even though the profits weren’t there.”
“It’s definitely had a major impact on business, and our employees as well,” said Angelo, who opened Boyer’s a mere eight days before Wolf’s stay-at-home directive. “We’ve had to scale back dramatically with our staff. But you’re seeing things start to get better. We started with to-go for food and then it went to-go for drinks. As a restaurant owner, I’m looking at it as we’re heading in a positive direction.”
Though the cocktails-to-go law has helped restaurants stay afloat, it is temporary in nature and expected to be eliminated when businesses begin to approach their former levels of business. But for local restaurant owners, what makes sense now could also make sense in the future.
“I can only speak for me, but I just feel it’s a safety issue,” said Angelo. “If everybody’s responsible, it’s OK to do. There are always people who don’t follow rules. Mixing alcohol and motor vehicles is always a dangerous thing. It’s got to be a concern. I think that’s why we haven’t seen it before.”
Krick said he could see the law remaining in place after the pandemic.
“Each state has its own mandated laws for alcohol,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll see it as potential and give it a whirl.”
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