If you’ve been pining for a cocktail from your favorite bar, your spirits were probably buoyed by news that cocktails to go may soon be legal in the Keystone State, thanks to House Bill 327.
The bill passed in Pennsylvania’s House last week, and hit the state Senate’s Law and Justice Committee last Wednesday. On May 11, the committee unanimously voted to move the bill to the Senate floor.
The Senate is scheduled to meet again Tuesday and Wednesday, and again May 18-20.
If the Senate approves the bill as is, it could head to Gov. Tom Wolf as soon as Wednesday.
If there are changes, the bill would go back to the House for concurrence. (Both chambers of Pennsylvania’s legislature are Republican-led, which may ease the bill’s passage.) The House’s earliest scheduled sessions are May 11 to 13 and 18, and June 8 to 10.
The bill would allow licensees with a restaurant (R) or hotel (H) license that have lost more than 25% of their average monthly sales during the pandemic to serve sealed containers of mixed drinks in servings of no less than 4 ounces and no more than 64 ounces. In other words, there will be no shots.
Where does that leave bars — especially the ones that we don’t traditionally think of as restaurants?
Most of them actually have R licenses and are required to have a certain amount of food (unless they allow smoking, in which case less than 20% of their sales can come from food), said Chuck Moran, executive director of the Pennsylvania Licensed Beverage and Tavern Association, which helped craft the bill. That means bars that you might not think to eat in — Bob & Barbara’s, the Blarney Stone, Kung Fu Necktie, to name a few — are eligible to sell takeout mixed drinks if the bill passes.
However, the bill does specify that the eligible licensees “may sell prepared beverages and mixed drinks for off-premises consumption where meals prepared for pickup or curbside pickup are also available.”
That may present a wrinkle for those establishments, depending on how the section of the bill is interpreted. If selling takeout drinks is contingent on selling takeout food, you might see some of your favorite dives and live music venues with a more robust food menu than chips, popcorn, and peanuts.
The bill doesn’t apply to club liquor licenses, the kind held by American Legion posts and social clubs of various ilk.
Another section of the bill provides for one licensee selling liquor to another.
“That was put in there because there are some places that aren’t going to open up and they’re sitting on a large amount of unused, unopened liquor bottles,” Moran said.
The allowance may be especially helpful given that some of the state’s shutdown orders went into effect just before St. Patrick’s Day, for which many bars stock up on inventory.
Licensee-to-licensee sales will be allowed during the pandemic and in the mitigation period to follow, and require the seller to notify the Liquor Control Board in writing.
“It’d be a way so that they could at least get some of their money back if they’re not going to open,” Moran said.
The Tavern Association believes that 50% of bars, taverns, and clubs in the state have opted not to do any form of takeout during the pandemic.
Moran emphasized the importance of liquor sales to an average licensee’s financial health. “A lot of the bars, it’s how they make their money. They’ve been sitting on this liquor with no way to be able to sell it.”