New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced this month that she hopes to make permanent the relaxed to-go alcohol rules her disgraced predecessor Andrew Cuomo adopted in March 2020, during the early days of the pandemic. As the name suggests, the looser rules allow bars and restaurants to sell alcohol beverages to go.
When the governor announced her proposal during her first annual State of the State address earlier this month, it was met mostly with applause. Leaders in the hospitality industry, which has been devastated by a one-two punch of Covid cases and related government restrictions, raised a glass to toast the plan.
"Cheers to Governor Hochul for announcing her support to permanently bring back drinks to go at restaurants and bars," said New York City Hospitality Alliance head Andrew Rigie. "The drinks to go policy provides critically important revenue streams to struggling restaurants and bars and is extraordinarily popular with the public, unsurprisingly."
Covid-era alcohol deregulation has served to provide a rare bit of welcome news during otherwise lousy times, as I explained in a July 2020 column applauding states for legalizing to-go drinks. Those states liked their to-go laws, too. Indeed, many commentators are confident alcohol-to-go sales are here to stay. And with good reason. Dozens of states around the country relaxed rules for to-go alcohol, including cocktails. While some states have reversed those gains, most haven't. Over the summer, various outlets reported that at least a dozen states had made their to-go booze rules permanent.
New York State's situation is a bit of an outlier. As The Hill explained in the wake of Hochul's announcement, Cuomo actually let the state's to-go drinks rules expire in June, months before he was forced to resign. Hochul's move would not only bring back the exemption but also make it permanent.
But Hochul's plans, while they've garnered widespread support, are facing some serious if predictable pushback in the form of powerful liquor store interests in New York State. That's not a big surprise. As CNBC reported in May, liquor store lobbies have comprised the leading opposition against to-go cocktail legislation around the country. In New York State, liquor store interest groups are singing a familiar, sky-is-falling tune.
"This proposal will devastate our liquor stores, create a public health crisis, increase DWI incidents and underage sales, and upset the on- and off-premise system of distribution and sale of alcohol," reads a hyperventilating statement by MetroPSA, a New York liquor-store lobby, that was reported by Wine Spectator last week.
Those claims are largely false, nebulous, and overblown. "Is there a downside to loosening booze rules?" I asked in 2020. "I don't think so. While data suggest Americans have increased our alcohol consumption during the pandemic, harms tied to alcohol have also decreased. For example, data show drunk driving arrests are 'down dramatically' during the same period."
Notably, some critics have rightly suggested that Hochul's proposal doesn't do enough or go far enough, or do much to reform the state's outdated liquor laws. Steve Barnes, the Times Union's restaurant critic, explained in a great column last week that notes Hochul's proposal seems to exclude tasting rooms, which had been part of Cuomo's to-go plan and which are angry over having been excluded by the current governor's remarks. Barnes also explains that making to-go alcohol sales permanent is just one of many necessary steps New York State lawmakers should take to improve the regulatory climate for producers and consumers in the state. Lamenting the fact that "corners of the state's archaic booze laws still remain unaddressed," Barnes explains, for example, that most alcohol producers in the state can't ship directly to consumers in the state.
As Barnes suggests, the least New York State lawmakers should do is pass a new, permanent law that allows bars, restaurants, tasting rooms, and other alcohol producers and sellers in the state sell drinks to go. Once they've done that, lawmakers should get to work on making other meaningful and lasting alcohol reforms that give sellers and buyers more choices.