Coronavirus crisis-inspired business changes that forced Florida restaurants to rely more on carryout and delivery orders — including beer, wine and mixed drinks — stepped closer to becoming protected in Florida statutes Tuesday.
One of the bills seeking to make cocktails-to-go permanently legal in Florida flew through the Senate Regulated Industries Committee Tuesday. It drew bipartisan praise and only minor concerns about details such as the quantities of drinks that can be sold in takeout orders.
Cocktails to-go, as well as beer and wine to-go, have been allowed in Florida since an emergency order was issued in March, after restaurants were shut down except for carryout business during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, cocktails to-go may be a keeper.
Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley of Fleming Island pushed her Senate Bill 148 with the argument that the restaurant industry still is suffering from the COVID-19-caused crash of the hospitality industry, and alcohol sales in carryout and delivery food orders have been their lifeline. She and others also argue it is likely that the economic and cultural changes caused by the pandemic could foster long-term, even permanent changes in how restaurants do business.
“The current executive order has been a lifeline, helping restaurants accomplish a goal of being successful while also providing a convenience to consumers,” Bradley said. “My guiding principle as I approached this bill was: how can we mirror the takeout experience that a restaurant offers to match the in-person dining? How do we allow restaurants to continue to serve and meet their customers’ needs in the new environment?”
Bradley said she worked closely with representatives of alcohol retailers, those who might be nervous about new competition for the alcohol-at-home market. Several key industry groups and companies offered support for the bill, including Florida Retail Federation, the Florida Independent Spirits Association, and ABC Fine Wine & Liquor.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association offered exuberant support.
“For Florida’s restaurant industry, this is not an alcohol issue. This is an issue of survival,” said FRLA general counsel Samantha Padgett. “The hospitality industry has been devastated by the pandemic. Some restaurants have closed and will never come back. For many that are hanging on and hanging in there, alcohol to go has made all the difference.”
Also excited is the delivery industry.
“We look forward to continuing our work with both the House and the Senate to ensure the proven pro-business benefits of alcohol delivery are widely recognized and the service is protected by law,” Uber’s Javi Correoso stated in a release.
There are other bills. The Regulated Industries Committee took up Bradley’s bill rather than a similar one referred to the committee, Sen. Jeff Brandes‘ Senate Bill 134, covering much of the same ground. Rep. Josie Tomkow is likely to carry the House version with her House Bill 329.
Bradley’s bill was broadly amended Tuesday to, among other things, limit the alcohol-to-go option to only restaurants with state SRX licenses. That category includes most restaurants that have liquor licenses to sell beer, wine, and spirits. The definition more clearly delineates that establishments that are predominantly bars, or restaurants that don’t have liquor licenses, can’t sell liquor to go.
SB 148 would allow mixed drinks to be sold in containers of up to 32 ounces, provided the drinks are mixed on the premises and the containers have tamper-proof seals. The alcohol must also be part of an order for food. Those containers must then be sealed in bags. If they are delivered, they must be transported in trunks, compartments, or locked boxes that a delivery driver cannot reach while driving. Recipients’ IDs have to be checked and documented at delivery.
There is no sunset. If the bill goes into law as is, it will be permanent.
Senators from both parties raised a few questions about whether the language provides enough definition of sealed containers, how the drinks can be transported, whether there should be a maximum amount of beverage allowed per order, or whether there should be a sunset date. But even the senators who raised those concerns, such as Republican Sen. Joe Gruters and Democratic Sen. Lauren Book, expressed strong overall approval for the bill.
“I actually think this is a fantastic bill,” said Gruters, of Sarasota. “This is a forever thing. But I think that as a result of COVID-19, the behaviors of consumers are forever going to change. And I think restaurants need to adapt to survive.”