SALT LAKE CITY — The state's largest restaurant industry group is gearing up to press the Utah State Legislature to allow "to-go cocktail" sales in an effort to keep struggling businesses afloat through the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We’ve lost 450 restaurants in the state that are never going to open again and now we need to be able to say 'Look, if we want to stop the bleeding, we can’t just put a Band-aid on this. We have to do everything we can to help these businesses survive,'" said Melva Sine, the head of the Utah Restaurant Association.
The group has been working to get lawmakers to allow curbside alcohol sales in the face of $3 billion industry-wide losses in Utah. Sine argued that allowing liquor sales like they do take-out could help restaurants and bars stay afloat. The drinks would be sealed, like a six-pack at a grocery or convenience store.
"We’re asking for this to be temporary through the pandemic," Sine said.
Other hospitality groups have been trying to persuade the legislature to change its position on it. Bars have organized petition drives to get curbside sales, but acknowledge they face an uphill battle on Capitol Hill.
Liquor policy has always been a thorny issue in Utah, with many lawmakers adopting the stance that the state supplies alcohol — but does not endorse it and certainly takes steps to prevent over-consumption. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a major political and cultural force in the state, has been outspoken in its opposition to loosening liquor laws.
But across the nation, even other liquor control states are changing their positions during the COVID-19 pandemic that has crippled the economy. Many have agreed to allow bars and restaurants to sell "curbside," with restrictions.
Even Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has explored the idea of online ordering and curbside pickup at state-run liquor stores. The agency has dealt with long lines outside its stores with hours limited and staffing shortages during the pandemic.
Appearing on "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast" produced by FOX 13 and The Salt Lake Tribune, former DABC commissioner Amanda Smith signaled her support for the idea of curbside sales but acknowledged the political realities.
"This is probably, there’s a high unlikelihood of this, but I really think that given COVID, they should look at the ability to do to-go cocktails," Smith said of law changes.
Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, who oversees liquor legislation for the House of Representatives, said in August he was not inclined to change the law. But Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who chairs the powerful Senate Business & Labor Committee, told FOX 13 on Wednesday that he was open to the idea.
"That sounds like a reasonable request, a reasonable proposal," Sen. Bramble said.
Sen. Bramble was quick to point out he would like to see a bill and its language, but noted that during COVID-19 many businesses have been forced to change their models to keep open.
"Folks are going to govern themselves appropriately or not based on being a free citizen in the United States, not based on state policy," he said. "So I’m in the camp where I would rather let adults be adults and let them be responsible for their actions."