By Kit Norton/VTDigger
When the Covid-19 pandemic closed down restaurants and bars, Vermonters developed a taste for buying takeout booze. Now legislation on its way to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk would allow to-go alcohol sales for two more years.
Scott indicated at the press conference Tuesday, June 1, that he supports the bill, “It was my administration that originally proposed it,” he said.
Scott signed an executive order last March, allowing curbside pickup and home delivery of alcohol. The bill, H.313, which the Legislature approved late last week, would authorize alcohol sales via curbside pickup for another 24 months, giving eateries more options to turn a profit as the state begins to move away from pandemic restrictions.
The proposal also requires the Dept. of Liquor and Lottery to submit a report on curbside sales and delivery of alcohol to the Legislature by 2023. Lawmakers plan to review the report before deciding whether to make permanent changes in liquor laws.
“We’ll learn more over the next two years — whether it’s totally safe or whether it’s a good business practice,” said Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, who chairs the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs.
Chris Karr, who owns multiple restaurants in Killington, said Scott’s emergency order allowing curbside alcohol sales helped businesses bring in money during the pandemic.
Now, Karr said, as social distancing and occupancy restrictions taper off, to-go alcohol sales will continue to be an important revenue stream as the restaurant business rebuilds.
“If we have the ability to sell a cocktail or a bottle of wine to-go, then that gets added to the pie,” Karr said.
Sue Bette, founder of Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington and a co-founder of the coalition Vermont Independent Restaurants, said many business owners are uncertain about how consumers will react to loosened Covid-19 restrictions. It’s difficult to predict what people will feel comfortable doing this summer and beyond.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to get back on our feet again,” she said. “The alcohol-to-go provision — to allow us to continue a program that people are used to — is really helpful.”
“This really gives restaurants the flexibility to adjust the dining preferences of our guests,” Bette added.
While the curbside alcohol sales extension was included in the final bill, other provisions aimed at modernizing the state’s liquor laws were not.
Spirits producers, including Barr Hill Gin, had pushed to allow direct-to-consumer online sales in Vermont. That would have allowed local distillers to ship vodka, gin, rum and other hard liquor to state residents.
The idea never made it into the final package, but Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, the lead sponsor of H.313, said his goal in the coming years is to work on a more expansive overhaul to Vermont’s alcohol laws.
Direct-to-consumer online sales is something he and other lawmakers will take a longer look at in 2022, Birong said.
“Those are on a pause button,” he said. “Those conversations are not over.”
H.313 also stipulates that state agencies must report to the Legislature by Oct. 15 of this year on creating a legal sports betting market in the state.
The governor has repeatedly pushed the Legislature to sign off on sports betting and the Senate has shown interest. Last June, the Senate approved a study committee to assess how the state could tax and regulate sports betting in Vermont, but the House declined to go along.
Now, however, both chambers seem onboard with carefully considering sports betting in 2022.
Sirotkin, who favors a legal sports betting system, said about 140,000 Vermonters are already taking part in an illicit market and the state government is losing out on millions of dollars in revenue.
“We should have all the legwork ready for us so we can hit the ground running next year,” he said.