There are surely some glasses being raised this week to toast those Maryland jurisdictions that have decided to continue allowing restaurants and bars to sell mixed drinks for off-premises consumption, a practice commonly referred to as “go cups.” Gov. Larry Hogan first approved this relaxation of liquor laws last summer as part of the state’s COVID-19 relief plan. Other states took similar steps. The thinking was — and ultimately proved correct — that this new feature would boost carryout and delivery orders, as lockdowns otherwise devastated the hospitality industry. Those 20-ounce margaritas with an order of chicken tacos helped keep a lot of restaurants in business, and many consumers likely appreciated the convenience. That’s probably why the General Assembly and Governor Hogan agreed to legislation allowing Maryland’s 23 counties and the cities of Baltimore and Annapolis to continue the practice for another two years.
Maryland is not alone in this. More than a dozen states have gone further and elected to keep the go cup exemption permanently. And, again, for the vast majority of patrons, this is probably no big deal. Unfortunately, however, changes in alcohol regulations can have serious implications for public health and safety. One person’s convenient mixed drink in a plastic cup is another’s temptation on the drive home. Or opportunity for the underage to have greater access to alcohol. Or simply an enabling of excessive alcohol consumption that can lead to high-risk behavior, domestic violence and worse. The potential for adverse consequences is not something to be taken lightly.
That’s why most Baltimore area jurisdictions are at least pausing a continuation of go cups, at least for a few weeks or months. That includes Baltimore City, where off-premises alcohol consumption has been mentioned as one of the factors in recent violence in Fells Point that not only triggered an increased police presence in response but, most tellingly, DWI checkpoints. As of Thursday, the city no longer allows to-go cocktails. Same with Baltimore County. Liquor boards are essentially mulling things over. In Baltimore County, for example, a public hearing will be held later this month (July 12 at 1 p.m. in Room 104 of the Jefferson Building in Towson) to decide whether to allow go cups in the future. And we strongly agree that what seemed to be a lifeline for bars and restaurants at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic deserves much greater scrutiny as that industry reawakens.
The problem boils down to this: We don’t really know what the full impact of the go cup has been, beyond their immediate financial benefit to the seller. There just isn’t enough data. But there are reasons to be concerned. First, because alcohol-involved crashes cause more than 10,000 U.S. deaths each year and because in 2020, highway fatalities rose to their highest level since 2007 (38,680 to be exact) despite the fact that Americans drove less during the pandemic. Law enforcement doesn’t keep the presence of a go cup as an accident statistic. But here’s one to ponder: An undercover survey in Montgomery County found IDs were not checked 55% of the time when restaurants fulfilled a carryout order with alcohol, according to the Maryland Public Health Association.
As we’ve observed many times before, Maryland’s liquor laws are a contradictory mess and often a product of dueling special interests from restaurants and bars to distributors and producers. That it has been far easier to have a martini delivered to someone sitting behind the wheel of a car these past 15 months than to buy wine at a grocery store seems downright bizarre. In St. Mary’s County, Maryland’s birthplace and home to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, go cups were famously banned in the mid-1980s because local officials judged them as harmful to public safety. Thirty-five years ago, continuing to permit drive-through windows at liquor stores seemed irresponsible. How times have regressed. The Southern Maryland county’s liquor board has chosen not to allow further go-cup sales this week incidentally, but issued a statement acknowledging they may yet in the future as the need for economic relief is balanced against “public health and welfare.”
To which we can only add: Don’t be in a rush. As part of the legislation approved by state lawmakers this year, the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission and Maryland Department of Health must complete a study of the impact of this expansion of alcohol access by the end of next year. Liquor boards that choose to relax rules on go cups before then ought to be prepared to face the consequences. Sadly, Marylanders who abuse alcohol don’t simply put their own health and lives at risk, it can have profound consequences for the innocent, from family members to fellow drivers. There was an element of desperation in the choice to allow alcohol to flow so freely. Now is the moment for a little more vigilance.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.