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Published: 05/31/2021 9:04:58 PM
Modified: 05/31/2021 9:04:56 PM
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed restaurants and bars, Vermonters developed a taste for buying alcohol to go. Now, on the way to Governor Phil Scott’s desk, legislation would allow alcohol to be sold for another two years.
Scott signed an executive order last March allowing for roadside alcohol pickup and delivery. Bill H.313, which legislature approved late last week, would authorize roadside alcohol sales for an additional 24 months and give restaurants more opportunities to make a profit if the state begins to move away from pandemic restrictions remove.
The proposal also calls for the Department of Liquor and Lottery to submit a report to lawmakers on the sale and delivery of roadside alcohol by 2023. Legislators plan to review the report before deciding whether to make permanent changes to alcohol laws.
“We’re going to learn more over the next two years – whether it’s completely safe or if it’s good business practice,” said Senator Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs.
Chris Karr, who owns several restaurants in Killington, said Scott’s emergency ordinance, which allowed roadside alcohol to be sold, helped businesses make money during the pandemic.
Now, Karr said, takeaway alcohol sales will continue to be a major source of income as social distancing and occupancy restrictions ease as the restaurant business rebuilds.
“If we have the opportunity to sell a cocktail or a bottle of wine to take away, it comes down to the cake,” said Karr.
Sue Bette, founder of Bluebird Barbecue in Burlington and co-founder of the Vermont Independent Restaurants Coalition, said many business owners are unsure how consumers would react to eased COVID-19 restrictions.
It’s hard to predict what people will be comfortable with this summer and beyond.
“It will take a while to get back on our feet,” she said. “Having alcohol to-go – so we can get on with a program that people are used to – is really helpful.”
“That really gives restaurants the flexibility to adapt the culinary preferences of our guests,” added Bette.
While the extension of roadside liquor sales was included in the final bill, other provisions to modernize the state’s liquor laws were not included.
Liquor makers, including Barr Hill Gin, had been pushing to allow direct online sales to Vermont consumers.
That would have enabled local distillers to deliver vodka, gin, rum, and other high-proof spirits to residents of the state.
The idea never made it into the final package, but Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, the main sponsor of H.313, said his goal in the years to come is to work on a broader overhaul of Vermont’s alcohol laws.
Selling direct to consumers online is something he and other lawmakers will take a closer look at in 2022, Birong said.
“They’re on a pause button,” he said. “These talks are not over yet.”
H.313 also stipulates that government agencies must report to lawmakers by October 15 this year on the creation of a legal sports betting market in the state.
The governor has repeatedly urged lawmakers to sign sports betting, and the Senate has shown interest.
Last June, the Senate approved a committee of studies to assess how the state could tax and regulate sports betting in Vermont, but the House of Representatives declined.
Now, however, both chambers appear to be on board to carefully consider sports betting in 2022.
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