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The pandemic spurred many states to temporarily relax rules for selling alcohol to give restaurants and bars short-term financial relief. In some places, those changes are becoming permanent.



A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Over the course of the pandemic, many states helped restaurants and bars by temporarily relaxing the rules for selling alcohol. In some places, those changes are becoming permanent. From member station WKAR in Lansing, Mich., Sarah Lehr reports.

SARAH LEHR, BYLINE: The Cellar Peanut Pub in Iowa is known for its bloody marys. But when the state shut down indoor dining to curb the spread of COVID-19, the pub’s owner, Marty Duffy, worried his tomato juice cocktails wouldn’t be the only thing in the red. The bar got a reprieve when an emergency order allowed businesses with liquor licenses to temporarily sell cocktails for carryout or delivery. So Duffy started packing up those drinks using a hand-operated machine that makes aluminum cans.

MARTY DUFFY: I would can for 14 hours a day just to, basically, save my business.

LEHR: At the height of the pandemic, 39 states allowed cocktails to go, at least in the short term. Iowa became the first state to make the change permanent in 2020. Now Mike Whatley with the National Restaurant Association says at least 17 other states have followed suit with their own laws to permanently allow carryout cocktails. Whatley calls it one of the biggest shifts in American liquor laws since the end of prohibition.

MIKE WHATLEY: Honestly, without the pandemic, it would have taken 5 to 10 years or more to have this many states pass laws that change alcohol policy so significantly.

LEHR: Jarrett Dieterle is a researcher with the R Street Institute, a think tank supporting free markets. Even though drinks to go are popular with customers, he says the highly regulated liquor industry can be tough to reform.

JARRETT DIETERLE: It creates this patchwork and a lot of kind of vested interest. And it’s made change just really, really difficult in the industry.

LEHR: In some states, wholesalers and liquor stores are lobbying against more permissive laws. They worry they’ll lose business as restaurants get more leeway. Massachusetts is extending its policies, letting restaurants and bars sell alcohol for carryout and delivery until early 2023. Robert Mellion lobbies for liquor stores through a group called the Massachusetts Package Stores Association. He argues the relaxed rules make it harder to police underage drinking.

ROBERT MELLION: During, you know, the first year and a half of the pandemic, it was understood we needed to make restaurants whole. Restaurants are whole now. Now it’s about additional profitability. And it’s additional profitability at the expense of somebody else, the mom-and-pop liquor store across this country.

LEHR: In Michigan, a pandemic relief measure is letting bars and restaurants offer mixed drinks to go until the end of 2025. And lawmakers here recently voted to permanently enact another COVID-era policy. Now local governments can designate outdoor social districts where people can schmooze and booze on public streets so long as the drinks are purchased from nearby businesses. Lansing City Councilman Peter Spadafore says the open container zones let people socialize more safely at a distance while the coronavirus was raging. But as he sipped a vodka with lemon and lime in Michigan’s capital city, Spadafore argued the benefits of social districts will outlast the pandemic.

PETER SPADAFORE: I think the pandemic really caused us to reevaluate our beliefs and sort of mores around drinking. You can see people out and about with a drink in their hand or just window shopping and, really, kind of a different set of folks coming to this destination.

LEHR: If you like being able to carry out a margarita or to stroll downtown with a drink in your hand, you may have the pandemic to thank. For NPR News, I’m Sarah Lehr in Lansing.

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