Restaurants hope for return of to-go cocktails

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Restaurants in Philadelphia are scrambling to adapt after being told that they are no longer allowed to offer to-go cocktails or serve alcohol to customers sitting in expanded outdoor dining areas.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board alerted business owners Tuesday afternoon of the changes, which took effect immediately.

Many in the industry thought they could take a break from shifting rules after Philadelphia lifted its final coronavirus restrictions last week, said Ben Fileccia, director of operations and strategy for the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Restaurateurs “were just really taken off guard, and a lot of them still don’t know what they can and can’t do,” Fileccia told Metro.

It was an abrupt, although not entirely unexpected, change given that the temporary measures, extended to eateries as a lifeline during the pandemic, were tied to Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus disaster declaration.

Voters last month approved a pair of ballot questions that transferred emergency powers from the governor to state lawmakers.

Legislators in Harrisburg voted to end the disaster declaration, and it was lifted Tuesday after the primary results were officially certified.

In addition to halting sales of mixed drinks to-go, restaurants can no longer allow alcohol consumption in special outdoor dining areas that were permitted as a result of the pandemic but not covered under their liquor license.

The PRLA is urging its members to log in to their PLCB portal and apply to extend their license. The process, which usually takes a month, will be expedited to allow for continued operations, Fileccia said.

A bill that would permanently legalize to-go cocktails is advancing in the state legislature, though it has stirred some partisan tensions.

After being approved in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the law was amended in the Senate to incorporate ready-to-drink cocktails, paving the way for the products to be sold in grocery stores and other venues.

Unlike mixed drinks to-go, ready-to-drink cocktails, which are now only available for takeout at state liquor stores, are bottled or canned off-site.

Some Democrats view the amended bill as an attempt to whittle away at the state’s monopoly on spirits.

Wolf, in a statement Tuesday, expressed support for the continuation of to-go cocktails for bars, restaurants and hotels, but cautioned that lawmakers should send him “a clean bill.”

Fileccia said the PRLA backs the amendments, as permitting the sale of ready-to-drink cocktails to be consumed off-premises would benefit the industry.

“We’re really hoping at this point that Gov. Wolf, when the bill hits his desk, that he’ll sign it,” he said.

Cocktails to-go were authorized at the state level last May, and restaurants, until Tuesday, were allowed to sell up to 64 ounces per transaction through 11 p.m.

It helped a lot, especially early in the pandemic, and customers have become accustomed to picking up mixed drinks, Fileccia said.

“Now guests are kind of comfortable with being able to go to their favorite spot and order some meals to go but also grab a couple drinks to go,” he added.

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