The reasons Philly can’t have to-go cocktails this summer

When it comes to Pennsylvania alcohol laws, nothing is ever simple.

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The days when Philadelphians could hit up a local bar and walk away with a spirit-infused drink were short lived.

Temporarily legalized during the height of the pandemic as a life raft for restaurants, cocktails to go are officially banned under Pa.’s rules around booze, which have now returned to their arcane and complicated pre-COVID status.

A last-ditch attempt this week to get the Pa. Senate to reconvene for a remote vote on this issue fizzled. If to-go cocktails do return, it’s now very unlikely to happen before September, when the General Assembly returns from summer recess. That’s four hot months with no cold takeout drinks.

It makes Pennsylvania something of an outlier.

During the pandemic, dozens of cities and states legalized to-go cocktails as a relief measure. And at least 14 states plus Washington, D.C. have approved measures that will keep them around on a permanent basis.

In Pa., their abrupt end was a side effect of a ballot question voters approved during the May election.

Also gone now is the emergency rule that allowed restaurants to erect and serve alcohol in temporary outdoor structures without special permits or inspections, so they could welcome more guests in COVID-safe environments.

If you want to understand why this all happened — and what restaurants can do now — here’s a step-by-step explainer.

How did this all start?

Cocktails to-go were temporarily legalized in Pennsylvania in May of 2020, when Gov. Tom Wolf responded to the coronavirus pandemic by signing a disaster emergency declaration. That declaration allowed restaurants and bars to sell mixed drinks to be consumed off the premises.

But in this year’s primary election, Pennsylvanians voted to approve a ballot question that would allow the General Assembly to override the Democratic governor’s disaster declaration. And on June 10, the Republican-controlled legislature did just that.

Five days later, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board announced that selling cocktails to go and serving alcohol in many of the outdoor structures restaurants built during the pandemic were no longer legal.

What’s the big deal about to-go cocktails anyway?

First of all, they’re fun. Don’t be annoying.

More importantly, restaurateurs across the state have said selling cocktails to go was a life-saver over the last 16 months.

“Cocktails to go and outdoor seating helped sustain the industry in the height of the pandemic,” Zak Pyzik, director of government affairs at the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, told Billy Penn. “All restaurant owners are looking for are these simple tools that can help with their recovery. But yet again there is unpredictability, uncertainty and empty promises.”

Did anyone try to get the to-go drinks back?

Yes! Making the portable bevs permanent has been a months-long endeavor.

The Pennsylvania House passed HB 1154 back in May, which would allow restaurateurs to continue selling cocktails to go. It was then kicked over to the Senate, where the Law and Justice Committee approved the bill 6 to 5 on June 15, and it was narrowly approved by the whole chamber.

What went wrong?

The Senate committee didn’t just advance the bill. Its members also added in a controversial new ready-to-drink provision. That line item would have allowed grocery stores, convenience stores, beer distributors and hotels to begin selling ready-to-drink, spirits-based cocktails.

That would be a huge change for Pennsylvania, because right now, only the state-run Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores can legally sell liquor-based drinks to be consumed off site.

Many Harrisburg Democrats called this a step toward privatization of the liquor market, which they have traditionally fought against. They argued it should not be folded into the legislation regarding to-go drinks at restaurants.

“I believe it should go in a standalone bill and let the debate begin,” Philly state Sen. Tina Tartaglione told the Business Journal. “We’ve not had very much discussion on the issue and I don’t feel that it belongs in this bill.”

If the bill made it to his desk with that ready-to-drink provision intact, Gov. Wolf said, he’d veto it.

Stripped by the House

When the Senate sent the updated bill back to the other chamber to reconcile the two versions, House members removed the ready-to-drink provision, approved the newly revised bill 170-31, and sent it right back to the Senate on June 24.

What did the Senate do this time?

Nothing! That’s the problem.

The Senate was left with one day before its summer recess to review the bill and vote on it. But despite a push from advocates and City Councilmember Allan Domb, the legislative body didn’t bring the bill to a vote on June 25. Instead, it will collect dust until the members reconvene on Sept. 20.

Meantime, Pennsylvania’s bars and restaurants can’t sell to-go cocktails — and they’re no longer allowed to serve alcohol at many new outdoor dining structures.

“It comes down to, some think this deserves its own conversation, and some want to have it now,” Pyzik said. “But restaurants have again been put in the middle of this, and the industry is facing more unpredictability and uncertainty at a time when it’s supposed to be going back to normal.”

What do restaurants do now?

If they haven’t already, they need to stop selling cocktails to go, because it’s no longer legal.

If restaurant owners are worried about the legality of the outdoor dining structures built during the pandemic, Pyzik of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association recommends visiting the PLCB website. It costs $220 to apply for a permit extension to keep serving alcohol out there.

The PLCB will have to send someone out to inspect the premises, but Pyzik said they’ve been issuing restaurants temporary permission to continue using outdoor structures in the meantime.

“A lot of these restaurants have built new infrastructure and invested a lot of time and energy into seating areas,” Pyzik said. “Hopefully there will be a more permanent solution, but right now it’s important that folks at least know there’s this option: Apply for temporary extension, and in the interim, it sounds like the PLCB will allow you to still operate.”

Will it get legalized in the fall?

Several Harrisburg lawmakers are now working on the issue, so it’s likely to come up again when the General Assembly reconvenes in September.

If the bills don’t get derailed by add-ons again, to-go cocktails could actually happen.

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