Takeout cocktails, a lifeline for food businesses across the city and one of the most popular policies to come out of the pandemic, will come to an abrupt end this week. At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York’s state of emergency, which has allowed restaurants and bars to sell alcoholic beverages to-go since March 2020, would be lifted after Thursday, June 24.
“The emergency is over,” Cuomo said. “It’s a new chapter.”
Cuomo had previously extended the state’s temporary takeout cocktail program by 30 days, set to expire on July 5, but city and state organizations are now interpreting the end of the state of emergency as an early end to liquor to-go for restaurants and bars. Following the announcement, the New York State Liquor Authority tweeted that “...with the ending of our state of emergency and the return to pre-pandemic guidelines, the temporary pandemic-related privileges for to-go and delivery of alcoholic beverages will end after June 24.” A spokesperson for the SLA confirmed to Eater that all alcohol to-go sales, with the exception of beer, are no longer allowed for restaurants and bars after tomorrow. Beer previously could be sold for takeout and delivery prior to the pandemic.
The surprise announcement sent restaurant and bar owners scrambling. “While we expected this to end at some point, it is far too early,” Moshe Schulman, a partner at Ruffian and Kindred in the East Village, said in an email. “Yes, we are moving back into post pandemic life; however, business is still far from normal. It’ll take another six months to a year for most businesses to get back to a sustainable and stable place. To go alcohol has been crucial for our business and so many others — why take it away now?”
Multiple bar owners, including Schulman and Jeremy Andre of Barely Disfigured in Brooklyn, say that they received no forewarning about the end of the program from state officials.
“As a thoughtful business we try to plan a year, or at least several months out,” says Patrick Cournot, another partner at Ruffian and Kindred in the East Village. “When government makes changes like this that are not urgent, it creates chaos and forces us to be incompetent too.”
Throughout the pandemic, takeout and delivery liquor sales have helped some food businesses stay afloat, accounting for as much as 50 percent of some restaurants’ sales. Even as New York emerges from the pandemic, to-go liquor remains a small “lifeline” for many businesses, according to Melissa Fleischut, president of the New York State Restaurant Association. “Restaurants are struggling to find staff, keep up with rising costs, and manage a limited supply of goods, and nearly two-thirds of the applicants will not receive Restaurant Relief Funds,” she said in a statement to Eater.
For some owners, however, the to-go alcohol allowance won’t be missed. Andre of Barely Disfigured says that while the program was a lifeline in the early months of the pandemic, when restaurants and bars were restricted to takeout and delivery-only, he’s only had “a couple” customers ask about to-go cocktails since reopening the 150-seat bar in May. Of the roughly 300 customers that have been frequenting the bar on Friday and Saturday nights since Barely Disfigured reopened, the vast majority are not looking for to-go options.
Still, polls have shown that New Yorkers overwhelmingly want takeout cocktails to become permanent. In June 2020, roughly three months after the start of the temporary program, a survey from the NYSRA estimated that 86 percent of New Yorkers wanted takeout liquor sales to remain in place after the pandemic. More recent surveys put that number closer to 78 percent, according to Fleischut.
Licensees please be advised that with the ending of our state of emergency and the return to pre-pandemic guidelines, the temporary pandemic-related privileges for to-go and delivery of alcoholic beverages will end after June 24. pic.twitter.com/bkjnbbvBw4— NYS Liquor Authority (@NY_SLA) June 23, 2021
The state’s temporary takeout cocktail program, which allows restaurants and bars to sell wine bottles and cocktails to-go, has been extended multiple times since the start of the pandemic. Elected officials introduced legislation to make the program permanent earlier this year, but the law was not passed prior to New York lawmakers ending their current legislative session in mid-June.
“It’s a real shame the state legislature didn’t extend alcohol to go to support struggling restaurants in their long recovery, while also keeping the policy which has been so popular with the public,” Andrew Rigie, the executive director for the NYC Hospitality Alliance, said in an email to Eater. “We’ll continue to advocate for the return alcohol to go during the next legislative session, which would be very welcomed by restaurants and customs alike.” State legislators are scheduled to next meet in January 2022 but could reconvene earlier for a special session.
Selling alcohol for takeout and delivery has already been made permanent in nearly a dozen states across the country. Texas made to-go alcohol sales permanent in mid-May, while Florida followed suit for some restaurants in the same week. In early June, California extended legalization of cocktails-to-go through the end of 2021.
As of June 21, the COVID-19 test positivity rate on a seven-day average in NYC was 0.54 percent, according to city data, tracking well below officials’ safety threshold of 5 percent. More than 11 million New Yorkers — close to 60 percent of the state population — have received at least one dose of the vaccine at the time of publication, according to state data.
Update, 5:25 p.m.: This story has been updated with additional information from the State Liquor Authority.