December 2, 2021
By Jennifer Tiedemann
After COVID-19 took hold in the United States, hundreds of federal and state regulations were waived to help Americans weather the pandemic. Among the most popular of these regulatory rollbacks has been the suspension of laws that prevented restaurants and bars from selling beer, wine, and cocktails to-go via takeout or delivery. Not only did customers appreciate (and take advantage) of the option, businesses found a lifeline when welcoming guests to dine or drink at their establishments wasn’t possible.
That lifeline is one that ought to remain when the pandemic is history. Government shouldn’t be standing in the way of small businesses—and it’s particularly absurd when supporting and saving them is the supposed goal.
As indoor dining restrictions have lifted across America, the future of to-go alcohol from restaurants in many states has become uncertain. Earlier this year, Arizona made this temporary relaxation permanent, following up Governor Doug Ducey’s March 2020 executive order waiving to-go alcohol restriction with a state law allowing restaurants, bars, and liquor stores to sell cocktails to-go permanently. Arizona was joined by 15 additional states and the District of Columbia in passing legislation to make to-go alcohol a permanent fixture.
But 15 other states that temporarily legalized to-go cocktails are currently set to let their COVID-era to-go alcohol regulation relaxations expire—and that could deal a major blow to businesses and employees still suffering from the COVID-related economic downturn.
The next of these temporary rollbacks that’s currently scheduled to end is New Jersey’s, with to-go alcohol set to go away on January 1, 2022. The economic damage wrought by COVID has hit particularly hard in that state, and ending this waiver certainly wouldn’t help efforts to recover. In late 2020, it was reported that about a third of NJ small businesses had closed during the year, with many of these closures due to the pandemic and subsequent restrictions. That was nearly one year ago, and today, the economic situation for lower-wage workers—many of whom find employment in restaurants or bars—continues to be less that rosy. TrackTheRecovery.org finds that employment rates for those making less than $27,000 a year went down by nearly 32% compared to January 2020—while high- and middle-wage earners have gone up over the same time period (see below).
In the state of New York, where the percentage of small business closure climbed nearly as high as the Garden State’s, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo abruptly revoked restaurants’ ability to-go cocktails and bottles of wine in late June—literally with a day’s notice. This stuck many of the city’s restaurants with thousands of dollars’ worth of wine and liquor that they could no longer easily sell, at a time when they sorely needed government to be throwing more roadblocks in their way.
The message sent by the state of New York was loud and clear: We don’t care about businesses’ ability to survive the pandemic. Perhaps it’s not at all surprising, then, that New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams, a Democrat, said on his campaign website that if elected, he would “slash the red tape to save small businesses” as they looked to re-open and grow. Even for liberal strongholds like the Big Apple, enough is enough.
In many restaurants and bars across the country, business as usual hasn’t returned—and it may never. It certainly won’t for the countless establishments forced to close their doors forever as a result of the pandemic. The good news is that even in states where to-go alcohol waivers are set to expire, several are considering either temporary or permanent extensions. (Even California—not exactly the Wild West when it comes to regulatory rollbacks—recently extended cocktails to-go through 2026.) At a time when too many of America’s small businesses are still struggling, we must make it easier for them to do business instead of holding them back.
Jennifer Tiedemann is the Deputy Director of Communications at the Goldwater Institute.