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Colorado lawmakers want to keep your to-go quarantinis flowing beyond the coronavirus crisis

But not everyone is toasting the bipartisan proposal, which would extend the policy allowing restaurants and bars to sell take-out beer, wine and mixed drinks for two more years

Teocalli Cocina bartender Tim Knight prepares a to-go cocktail on June 3, 2020. The Lafayette, Colorado, restaurant reopened to in-person dining on May 27, but continued doing brisk business with curbside pickup of food and drinks. Alcoholic beverages are served in plastic or paper cups with a lid and a Colorado Department of Revenue "seal" taped on that warns purchasers that opening the mixed drink in the car is illegal. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)
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There’s a lot Coloradans would rather forget about quarantine 2020, but here are a few things they might want to keep: the Rio’s carry-out margarita “survival kit,” the five-cocktail “Dr. Manhattan” from Post Brewing Co., and to-go bottles of Asahi beer via patio pickup at Sushi Den.

Take-out cocktails, bottles of wine and growlers of craft beer sold by restaurants and bars were a rare diversion during the dreary stay-at-home phase of the coronavirus outbreak and are still popular even after restaurants were allowed to open at 50% capacity last week. Selling booze with to-go food orders is normally illegal, but it was allowed — temporarily — through an executive order from Gov. Jared Polis intended to help restaurants survive the economic shutdown.

The governor signed the 30-day order in March and has extended it three times. It’s now in effect through June. 

But a group of bipartisan lawmakers is working on a proposal to keep the to-go thing going. Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, and Sen. Kevin Priola, a Republican from Henderson, introduced legislation this week that would allow restaurants and bars to sell take-out cocktails, wine and beer until July 2022. 

“The legislature can look at it in two years and say, ‘That was a great idea. Let’s make it permanent,’ or they can say, ‘That was a terrible idea. Let’s let it lapse,’ said Priola, a light drinker who never took advantage of the new rules because he is still trying to finish the beer left over from his Super Bowl party. 

To-go cocktails served at Teocalli Cocina in Lafayette, Colorado, June 3, 2020, come in plastic or paper cups with a lid and a Colorado Department of Revenue “seal” warning purchasers that opening the mixed drink in the car is illegal. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Priola and Bridges said they want to help restaurants and bars, which are struggling to survive after closing to in-person dining during the pandemic and are facing uncertain times ahead when many Coloradans are expected to avoid crowds and eat their meals at home. 

“Our restaurants and bars are dying,” Bridges said. “Some Colorado institutions are closing their doors, and if we can help them get through the next couple of years, that’s something we owe the people of the state and that’s something we owe the people who have invested their lives in those companies.”

The Colorado Restaurant Association, which helped write the bill, said 87% of their members have made money off alcohol sales during the pandemic. And according to the association’s survey, 85% of Coloradans want restaurants to continue to sell to-go cocktails. 

Some of the state’s liquor stores, however, are not cheering. 

Any claims that Colorado’s 1,500 liquor stores are making bank during the state’s stay-at-home and “safer-at-home” rules are false, said Jeanne McEvoy, executive director of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association. Stores are about 5% above normal compared with last year, she said, rejecting lawmakers’ statements that they were up as much as 300%. 

The liquor industry is still suffering from the 2019 law allowing grocery stores to sell full-strength beer, she said. “The wounds are not healed from the grocery store losses,” McEvoy said. “They are just not.”

Bridges said he’s expecting an all-out fight in the Senate and House if his bill gets a hearing, given the highly regulated and lobbied laws surrounding alcohol sales. “Alcohol bills are always the biggest fights in this chamber,” he said. “There is no partisan loyalty on alcohol fights. It’s every legislator for themselves.”

Even if the bill passes, the days of to-go margaritas in plastic soda cups will end when the executive order expires. The proposal says restaurants and bars would have to sell alcohol in sealed containers. 

“Colorado will not become Louisiana,” said Bridges, who has been getting Manhattans — and sometimes white Russians — from a favorite local bar in a paper coffee cup with tape over the drinking hole. 

The proposal says bartenders and restaurant staff would need training and certification to serve to-go drinks, and that anyone ordering or receiving them would need proof that they are at least 21. It also says no more than 50% of a restaurant’s revenue could come from take-away sales. And it puts a cap on the amount of alcohol per order — one bottle of wine, one bottle of spirits and a six-pack of beer. 

At Englewood Grand, a neighborhood bar in downtown Englewood, owner Erika Zierke is hoping the new way of doing business becomes permanent. 

The bar, which also sells French dip sandwiches, opened a walk-up window for three weekends when in-person dining was prohibited. People biked up and walked up for everything from PBRs to Manhattans. 

“It went really well and our community members loved it,” Zierke said. “Many people were saying, ‘Is this something that we are going to continue?’” 

Englewood Grand, a neighborhood bar in Englewood, opened a walk-up window for to-go cocktails and beer this spring while the bar was closed to in-person seating. It’s now open at half-capacity and has plans to expand outdoor seating into the alley and down the sidewalk. (Photo by Paul Winner)

The sales helped Englewood Grand stay afloat, bringing in about 10% of normal revenue — enough to pay some bills. The bar is making plans to expand outdoor seating to the alley and sidewalk, but Zierke expects revenue will suffer for months because of the half-capacity requirement and because many customers likely don’t feel comfortable sitting at the bar.

Damion Schulte, co-owner of Pour Tap House in Commerce City, said the to-go sales this spring saved his two-year-old bar. The taphouse had enough cash to stay open maybe a month and a half if it had shut down completely. But the to-go sales made it possible for Schulte to pay the rent.

The food trucks kept parking outside, and customers were allowed to come up to the bar — 6 feet apart — to choose from the 30 beers on tap and a few pre-made cocktails, including a Moscow mule and an old-fashioned. 

Four-packs of Strawberry Lemonade Sherbert and All Together Collaboration are stacked up for to-go sales at Pour Tap House in Commerce City. The bar is among those that hope quarantine-era take-out booze sales become permanent. (Provided by Pour Tap House)

“It has really helped us survive,’” Schulte said. “It absolutely provides something for the community. There are a lot of beers that we have on tap that they are just not going to be able to get from anywhere else.”

The to-go alcohol legislation was introduced Tuesday and has yet to have its first hearing. The legislature is in session for three weeks after taking a two-month break because of the coronavirus outbreak.

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