When most of the guidelines under Maryland’s pandemic state of emergency lapse Thursday, so too will provisions allowing Maryland bars and restaurants to sell mixed drinks to-go.
To the delight of orange crush and margarita lovers statewide, the General Assembly passed a bill to allow localities to continue the practice post-pandemic. But local liquor boards have the final say — and in many jurisdictions across the state, such as Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Ocean City, carryout cocktails won’t be allowed past midnight Wednesday.
Carryout alcohol sales became popular during the pandemic, serving as a lifeline for struggling restaurants and bars. Paul Benkert, owner of The Bluebird Cocktail Room in Hampden, said the bar would sell around 50 to-go cocktail kits a day at the height of the pandemic.
“During the holidays, like Valentine’s Day or Christmas, we definitely saw a huge source of revenue from being able to sell our cocktail kits,” Benkert said. “It certainly allowed us to bring in income that wouldn’t have been there.”
In Baltimore City, businesses will have to stick to what’s allowed in their original liquor licenses. But come fall, when city’s Board of Liquor License Commissioners plans to rehash all of the rules for licensees, officials plan to reevaluate to-go drinks, said Nicholas Blendy, the board’s deputy executive secretary.
“The board decided that: ‘Well, we’ll let things go back to the way that they’ve always been,’” Blendy said. “Our rules are up to be rewritten this year anyway. Best practices say it should happen every five years or so.”
Benkert said if the liquor board decides to allow to-go sales in the fall, The Bluebird will offer carryout cocktails again. But now, as restaurants and bars are reopening, he’s more focused on indoor dining.
“It’s not really going to affect us because we stopped offering the to-go cocktails to concentrate on our inside operations,” Benkert said. “If we’re allowed to offer it, we certainly will, but I’m not going to be putting up a fight.”
Baltimore County also plans to disallow to-go drinks come Thursday, but officials will hold a public hearing July 12 to discuss future carryout regulations, said Sean Naron, spokesman for the county executive. A decision from the liquor board is expected in the days following the hearing, he added. Carroll County, too, is pausing carryout drinks and holding a hearing July 14, said Jo Vance of the county’s liquor board.
Harford County also will pause to-go drinks until the county liquor control board’s next public hearing July 28, but ultimately aims to allow the practice, said Judi Powell, the board’s special projects coordinator. A lawyer for Anne Arundel’s liquor board couldn’t be reached for comment about that county’s plans.
Like The Bluebird, Lib’s Grill in Perry Hall experienced high demand during lockdown for their to-go crushes and sangria. Now, it’s trickled down to one or two orders every few days, said general manager Dara Jefferson.
“When restrictions started to dwindle, we didn’t see it as much, but we still left it as an option because our curbside and carryout is still very popular,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson sees the pause on to-go cocktails as more of an inconvenience to her customers than to the restaurant itself.
“We’re a one-stop-shop when they’re picking up food, they’re also able to get their alcohol and beverages instead of making an additional stop at the liquor store,” Jefferson said.
In Howard County, carryout drinks will continue through at least Aug. 15 — the grace period at the end of the state executive order — said David Yungmann, the county liquor board chair. But the board plans to hold a public meeting in July to firm up future plans, he said.
“It just seemed kind of goofy to have people stop doing it for a month,” Yungmann said.
Plus, the measure was very popular, and hardly problematic, he said.
“I don’t think we’ve had any adverse impacts over the past year from allowing people to do it,” he said.
Some local liquor boards may want to tinker with the pandemic-era rules, perhaps by adding quantity limits for carryout cocktail purchases or specifying which types of containers qualify, Yungmann said.
Officials in Howard also are working to allow previously ineligible businesses to continue offering outdoor dining, he said.
Brendan Dorr, owner of Dutch Courage in Charles Village, said he hopes the Baltimore liquor board decides to resume to-go drinks in the fall. Even if they account only for a small portion of bars’ revenue streams, it’s still money, he said.
He pushed back against criticism that to-go cocktails could be a “slippery slope” for bad behavior in public areas.
“If somebody is going to want to open a bottle of alcohol and have a drink of straight whiskey, you can do that,” Dorr said. “Those people are still going to exist whether [or not] these laws change.”