California could see to-go cocktails legalized under new bill

California lawmakers are considering two bills to expand revenue opportunities for the dining sector, which has been upended like few others by the pandemic.|

One of the few liberties gained by Californians during the pandemic — ordering cocktails to go from bars and restaurants — could be enshrined in state law under a new bill in consideration at the state Legislature.

Local bar and restaurant owners credit carry-out food and drink orders with helping to prop up their struggling business amid the coronavirus pandemic, as cities in Sonoma County and across the state loosened open-carry and consumption rules to allow adults to enjoy their beverages in plazas and parks.

State Sen. Bill Dodd says his proposal, SB 389, introduced Feb. 11, is another “shot in the arm” for the beleaguered food and beverage industry, which has endured deep job losses, furloughs and closures amid local and statewide limits on in-person service.

“This bill all on its own is no silver bullet,” said Dodd, D-Napa, whose district includes southeastern Sonoma County. “But ... there will be hopefully a nice patchwork quilt of bills that will be meaningful to the restaurant industry and help them increase their sales and revenue well into the future.”

Dodd’s proposal is supported by the California Restaurant Association, according to a press release from his office.

Dodd’s bill is one of at least two before the Legislature that seek to expand revenue streams for bars and restaurants. The other is Sen. Scott Wiener's Bar and Restaurant Recovery Act, introduced Feb. 5, which would permanently sanction expanded, pandemic-era outdoor dining on sidewalks, in alleyways and parking spaces along with other steps easing alcohol sales. Wiener’s bill does not contemplate to-go cocktails.

Though temporary allowances made for bars and restaurants remain in effect statewide, Dodd said the pandemic’s long duration and the frequent changes to public health orders demonstrate the need for regulatory certainty.

Saving businesses

In Healdsburg, Duke’s Spirited Cocktails has relied on to-go orders to remain in business.

“There is no way we could’ve survived without that,” cofounder Laura Sanfilippo said. In the first weeks of the pandemic with in-person service shuttered, the restaurant was “drowning,” with closure a real possibility. Many area business have shut their doors permanently.

Duke’s sits just off Healdsburg Plaza and its design, including a large window facing the sidewalk, gives it an advantage serving to-go customers, Sanfilippo said. It also benefited from measures the city rolled out, including allowing the formation of parklets — small eating and drinking areas on city streets. The city also allowed open alcohol containers in the plaza.

Sanfilippo welcomed legislation to make to-go cocktails permanent, and said she was already pushing officials to make other changes, like the parklets, long lasting.

Alcohol sales have higher margins than food, making them a key revenue source for bars and restaurants.

Once the pandemic ends, people will return to bars, Sanfilippo said, but she thinks new habits — like the popularity of delivery and takeout orders — will endure. Sonoma County businesses have shown they can serve alcohol to-go responsibly, Sanfilippo said.

“It’s been quite proven that this has been successful,” she said.

Healdsburg’s popular plaza has remained a draw for residents and visitors throughout the pandemic. Some changes made in that period could make it more attractive permanently, said Healdsburg Mayor Evelyn Mitchell.

“We’re looking for a long-term solution so that we can have parklets and more of a European feel within our city,” she said. “I do think the alcohol is a big part of that.”

Dodd hinted he may even remove the requirement that alcoholic beverages accompany food orders for to-go customers. That could raise more eyebrows, Mitchell said. “He might possibly have a harder time with that one,” she said.

But for businesses like wineries, which may have scrambled to develop food service in order to maintain alcohol sales, such a change made sense, said Santa Rosa Metro Chamber CEO Peter Rumble.

“Carrying forward a regulation that didn’t make sense into the new bill just perpetuates something that doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Positive results in cities

Opposition to loosened liquor rules traditionally stems from those concerned about alcohol abuse, drunken driving and the loss of family-friendly public spaces. Dodd has heard some of those concerns but said he has not seen “even anecdotal information” about problems from the current loosening of restrictions.

“Frankly if you’re that stupid that you’re going to drink and drive you probably don’t want to spend the money on these mixologists that are making these craft cocktails,” Dodd said. “You’ll buy some Jack (Daniels) and Coke and call it a day.”

Windsor, like Healdsburg, allowed open containers of alcohol in certain public spaces at limited times starting last summer. Officials called those efforts a resounding success.

Police in both cities have not reported any increase in drunken driving or other alcohol-related arrests or citations because of the pandemic-era regulations, officials said this week.

“We have not had any problems related to to-go alcohol and consumption in the downtown area,” said Windsor Town Manager Ken MacNab. “If you want to look at the last year as an experiment, for Windsor at least the results have been very positive.”

Even while imbibing in previously forbidden public spaces, drinkers have been “more careful” with their behavior because of the dangerous virus, Healdsburg Community Servives Director Mark Themig said. “Once we exit COVID does that change? I don’t think we know,” he said.

But were Dodd’s bill to pass, elected officials for California’s cities and towns would still control open container ordinances. “What the city governs is where you can drink it,” Themig said.

The bill is set to come before the Senate Committee on Governmental Organization, where Dodd is chair, sometime in March or early April.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor