‘Why would we not do this?’ — Restaurants push the state to allow curbside alcohol sales during pandemic

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Proper Burger has a new takeout and curbside menu for its customers, Saturday, March 21, 2020. Some are pushing the state to allow curbside pickup of alcohol during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the easiest ways the state could help Utah restaurants and bars during the coronavirus shutdown is to allow curbside alcohol sales.

Selling sealed bottles of wine or cans of beer — not cocktails in a to-go cup — when customers pickup food orders is something that many states already have allowed during the pandemic, said Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association. “We’ve asked the Utah Legislature to consider this.”

But the topic was not an item of discussion during Thursday’s special session — nor was it considered during the previous meeting a week earlier.

Industry officials now hope that it’s something Gov. Gary Herbert will address through an executive order.

Allowing curbside sales would not only generate much-needed revenue for the industry, Sine said, but it may also ease the long lines that develop at the state-run liquor stores.

“It would create this full-service experience," she said. "Consumers could get everything in one location.”

Utahns might find it helpful, too, if they could order and pay for the alcohol online at the same time they buy their food — especially since the state has asked people to avoid using cash and is encouraging no-touch payments.

Amid the coronavirus, several states have relaxed laws on alcohol purchases temporarily and are allowing curbside pickup and/or delivery of beer, wine and spirits, according to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.

For a change to happen in Utah, it would require action from the state’s elected leaders — not the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The state agency only enforces the laws that are passed, said industry lobbyist Lincoln Shurtz.

“The big question is: How do we do that?" he said. “Through an amendment or through executive order.”

Under current Utah law, he said, restaurants have “on-premises" alcohol licenses, which allow alcohol service only “within the confines of the establishment."

Bars that are offering takeout food during the shutdown may also sell sealed containers of regular beer (5% or less alcohol by volume). But people have to get out of the cars and go inside to pick them up.

Breweries and distilleries with package agency licenses also are allowed to sell bottles and cans of the alcohol they produce on-site. But, again, people have to go inside the building to buy them.

While the state is always leery that alcohol could slip into the hands of those under 21, Shurtz says restaurants could be required to verify age at pickup — something they already must do when they sell liquor inside the establishment.

Even the newly created Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission — which earlier this week presented a plan for moving the state from its current red or “high-risk” COVID-19 level to orange or “moderate” level — recommended that “the Legislature modify alcohol laws to ensure compatibility with the recommended guidelines."

To that end, the Legislature passed HB4004 on Thursday. It would allow businesses to defer their $2,000 bar-license renewals until the end of August — 90 days after they would normally be due. It’s a one-time accommodation that expires in 2021.

Salt Lake City lawyer Tanner Lenart represents many Utah restaurants that would benefit from temporarily allowing curbside alcohol sales.

“Why would we not do this?" she asked. “Why would we not want to help these very fragile businesses?"