Minnesota bars and restaurants, looking for ways to survive this winter as the pandemic drags on, are pushing Gov. Tim Walz and state legislators for an OK to sell premade cocktails.
“The stock we are sitting on is liquor and the profitability for restaurants is in cocktails,” said Jami Olson, owner of Mexican restaurant Centro in Minneapolis.
State leaders previously OK’d restaurants to sell beer and wine with takeout food orders, but Olson said that’s done little to help her bottom line during the pandemic. Customers want to be able to order a margarita with their tacos or nachos, she said, estimating sales would be up 40% with the addition of cocktail sales.
As Walz works with lawmakers on a possible relief package for businesses hit by COVID-19 closures, he said earlier this week that he’d be open to a provision allowing to-go cocktails with carryout food orders.
“If that’s something the Legislature can agree on, we should do that,” Walz said.
But what sounds like a simple change faces a complicated push through the divided Minnesota Legislature, with its history of moving slowly to update the state’s antiquated liquor laws. And the COVID relief package now being shaped behind the scenes is said to be more focused on direct grants and regulatory relief for bars, restaurants and other businesses forced to close as COVID-19 cases surge.
Starting Nov. 20, Walz ordered bars, restaurants, fitness center and entertainment venues to close for four weeks to slow the spread of the virus. It’s the second time since March that bars and restaurants have had to close to in-person service, triggering a new wave of temporary or permanent restaurant closures.
Lawmakers agreed in April to allow bars and restaurants to offer to-go beer and wine during pandemic-triggered closures, but there are limitations. Restaurants can sell alcohol only with food orders in original, unopened packaging, and sales are capped at 72 ounces of beer, cider or hard seltzer and 750 milliliters of wine per order.
While allowing to-go cocktails was discussed, legislators raised concerns about open container laws and possible insurance liability if the proposal were extended to cocktails to go.
Olson, the restaurant owner, said she’s frustrated that Walz hasn’t issued an executive order to allow bars and restaurants to sell to-go cocktails, in the same fashion he’s used his authority to close businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Walz has said he wants the Legislature to authorize changes to liquor laws — even temporary ones — because of questions about whether he has the legal authority to do so via executive order.
Governors in Colorado, Maryland and New Hampshire have allowed temporary sales of all alcohol or wine and beer through executive order, while liquor authorities or legislatures made the change in some other states.
“It’s passing the responsibility off on someone else, and realistically it would be way easier to do an executive order than figure it out with the Legislature,” Olson said. “I’m just worried they’re going to pass something small again and call it a win.”
Lawmakers could be called back to the Capitol soon to pass a relief package for struggling businesses. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, declined to state his position on to-go cocktails, but said in a statement that he’s “confident” the House and Senate will be able to craft a “package that supports struggling businesses without further burdening others.”
“I have been hearing from, and engaging with, stakeholders from across the industries affected by Gov. Walz’s unending restrictions, and I know that my colleagues and I will continue taking an in-depth look at the opportunities and challenges facing the broader hospitality industry,” Dahms said.
Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, chair of the House Commerce Committee, said discussions have been focused on grants and waiving liquor fees and regulations for bars and restaurants, which will spread the relief out to more businesses.
“It is a much broader approach for giving relief to the hospitality industry, and it’s better because it’s more predictable,” she said.
Brent Frederick, manager of a restaurant group that includes P.S. Steak, Monello and two locations of the Parlour cocktail bar, said liquor stores have reaped the benefits of bars and restaurant closures, creating an uneven playing field. He said there’s no reason lawmakers can’t do both direct relief and allowing to-go cocktails.
“It’s something that works in other places and can work here,” Frederick said. “If it helps the economy and helps get people back to work and doesn’t cost the state anything, why not say, ‘let’s try this.’ ”