Letting Restaurants Sell To-Go Drinks but Only With a Food Order Is a Good Idea Wrapped in a Dumb One

Where are calorie-counting scolds when you need them?


Restaurants, breweries, bars, and other places where Americans used to drink alcohol before the COVID-19 pandemic are struggling to survive. Many have closed. Many others remain open but won't make it.

Thankfully, many states around the country have relaxed rules for selling alcohol in order to help an industry that's been decimated by falling demand and mandatory closures and other restrictions spurred by the pandemic.

Lawmakers in many states have thrown something of a lifeline to these businesses by granting them the freedom to sell alcohol beverages to go. For example, as I reported last month, at least 30 states had changed rules to allow to-go alcohol sales by bars and restaurants temporarily during the pandemic.

Since then, Massachusetts has also joined the party. But the conditions attached to that state's relaxation of its rules, in many cases, seem to defeat the purpose of the bill. One key problem: the rule change requires to-go drinks to be offered only by restaurants (or bars with a foodservice license), and requires that any to-go order be paired with a food order—whether a consumer wants food or not.

Other weird and irritating conditions apply in Massachusetts, too. For example, the new rules cap drinks at two per entrée, imposes drink volume and booze-to-non-booze ratio restrictions, and requires any drinks to be provided in sealed containers. The rules also require any drinks to be served no later than midnight, and mandates any drinks sold to a consumer "to go in the trunk" of any car.

While it's fair to ask whether Massachusetts has imposed so many bizarre and idiotic conditions on to-go sales that the new rules have swallowed the purported exception, it's also the case that the food requirement Massachusetts has adopted for to-go drink orders—no food, no drink—is increasingly common around the country.

Rules in place since March in New York State allow to-go drink sales. Just as in Massachusetts, though, to-go drinks may only be sold with food.

One New York bar owner said the food requirement "will definitely hurt his bottom line because it requires people to purchase things they might not want, which may make them leave instead of order."

It probably comes as no surprise, then, that some bars that sneer at the foodservice requirement have attempted to work around the rule. Last month, an Upstate bar owner added a $1 order of chips and salsa to his menu "so customers would have a cheap food option if they just wanted a drink." The bar's menu dubbed the chips-and-salsa order "Cuomo chips," a sneering nod to New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, for the "unexpected hurdle" the governor had placed in the bar's path.

When Gov. Cuomo learned he'd been so honored, he allegedly smiled. Then he said Cuomo chips "do not suffice in the existing law as a bar serving food," which is apparently governorspeak for that's not what I meant.

Other states also require food to be sold alongside takeaway drinks. A proposed Maine law says to-go alcohol sales "must be accompanied by a food order." In a nod to the Cuomo chips controversy, the bill directs the state ABC bureau to determine "the type of food order that must accompany a take-out" order.

And here I thought there was an obesity problem. These rules are forcing Americans to consume empty calories they don't want. Where are all the public-health scolds when you need them?

States should be doing everything they can to ensure businesses can survive right now. Offering an oar to bars and restaurants is great, but not when it requires them to paddle and play a trumpet at the same time.