Virginia lawmakers are considering allowing open container districts and making delivery cocktails legal for another year as part of a package of roughly a dozen alcohol-related bills filed in this year’s General Assembly session.
Local restaurant owners have reported throughout the pandemic that the temporary provision allowing them to sell cocktails to-go has been helpful to their bottom line in this critical time and are now watching House Bill 1879, introduced by Del. David Bulova, D-Fairfax, which proposes to extend restaurants’ ability to sell cocktails to-go through July 1, 2022. The proposed legislation is a first step toward making permanent a temporary pandemic-provision that has allowed restaurants with mixed-beverage licenses to sell cocktails to-go since April 10.
“I think [cocktails to-go] has been a huge benefit to many restaurants,” said Tom Lisk, a state lobbyist who specializes in alcoholic beverage regulation and the restaurant and hospitality industries. “And consumer interest is expected to continue.”
Lisk said most restaurants would like to see cocktails to-go made permanent, noting that there haven’t been any issues with it in the nine months that the state has been allowing it, but this year’s proposed legislation is only for an extension. And it comes with a directive for the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to convene a work group to officially study it.
Travis Hill, CEO of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, said the agency doesn’t have an official position on the legislation, but noted that they “haven’t seen a big jump in enforcement around it” and they now “have experience with the structure and we’ve certainly heard from restaurants that it’s been beneficial.”
The proposed legislation would still require customers to buy food if they buy alcohol and would not allow anyone to buy more than four drinks. Drinks would also be required to be transported in sealed containers.
On the issue of open container districts , Del. Will Wampler III, R-Washington County, filed House Bill 1738 on Nov. 6 — months before the session began Wednesday — in an attempt to shore up support to allow Virginia localities to create up to three “outdoor refreshment areas” in which consumption of alcoholic beverages in the defined area would be allowed — as long as the beverage was purchased from a restaurant or brewery within the defined area.
If the legislation passes, the city of Richmond — or any locality — could designate areas such as Carytown, Scott’s Addition and Shockoe Bottom as three areas where restaurant customers could order drinks and then walk around outside while consuming them. The districts can be up to half a square mile.
There are caveats. The bill would require drinks be served in a container with the establishment’s logo. Localities are allowed to decide whether the spaces would include streets or sidewalks, but would require a public safety plan either way. Individual establishments aren’t required to participate. And toting a beverage into or past churches and schools would automatically be prohibited.
The proposed legislation mimics a state law passed in 2018 that allows commercial lifestyle centers, or shopping centers, with a mix of traditional retail stores and restaurants to get an ABC license that allows shoppers to take their drinks with them as they shop and encourages customers to visit multiple establishments within a shopping center in one visit, Lisk said.
“People think of Bourbon Street [in New Orleans], but lots of cities have done [something similar to Wampler’s proposed bill],” Lisk said, including the Power & Light District in Kansas City, Mo., and the Historic District in Savannah, Ga. Cincinnati is considering creating outdoor drinking districts this year.
An open-container area “doesn’t contribute to an increase in alcohol consumption, but provides a more controlled environment for it,” Lisk added.
Wampler said part of the impetus for introducing his bill is to help the state’s restaurant and hospitality businesses, whose profits and success have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, introduced a similar bill, House Bill 2051, last week as did Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William. The bills have support from multiple representatives throughout the commonwealth.
“This is the right move at the right time. No matter where you find yourself in Virginia, people are trying to find ways to support local businesses as our small-business owners continue to struggle. This legislation provides the flexibility we need to let that happen and help get people back to work. We will come back stronger because of this,” Wampler said.
Aside from the commercial lifestyle centers license, of which there are eight in the state — seven in Northern Virginia and one in Charlottesville, according to ABC — current laws that allow for outdoor drinking require special licenses or permits issued for specific events and require that the areas where alcohol is consumed be marked with psychical barriers, such as tape. And in most cases, event organizers bring in outside beer or wine vendors, which excludes the on-site restaurants or breweries from possible sales opportunities during the event, unless a separate special license is secured.
Other alcohol-related bills this year include:
- House Bill 1845
- from Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, which delays the effective date of the 2020 ABC license and fee reform until January 2022, and which Hill said ABC supports; Senate Bill 1428 from Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, which would prohibit ABC stores from selling low-alcohol beverage coolers from unlicensed distillers;
- House Bill 2131 from, Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, which asks that localities have a say in granting some ABC licenses, such as cases when the applicant is also the owner of a blighted property; and Senate Bill 1312, from Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, which would add a $1 per liter tax to Virginia spirits to be used toward a Virginia Spirits Promotion Fund.
Additional bills in both chambers propose changes to farm winery licensees, banquet licensees, the addition of mobile retailer licenses and expanded ABC license applications notice requirements.
Many of the proposed bills this year are small and targeted, VanValkenburg said, but aimed at assisting the state’s restaurant, alcohol and hospitality industries however the legislature can, such as by delaying fee changes.
“It’s one tool in the tool kit to help them keep their doors open,” VanValkenburg said. “And hopefully [the proposed laws] add up to keep our service industry alive and well.”