Op-Ed | Permanent drinks to-go is the common-sense lifeline our restaurants need right now

Assortment of Colored Berry Take Away Beverages in plastic cup.
Photo via Getty Images

There’s not one policy that is going to heal the devastated restaurant industry overnight. The loss and challenge facing the industry is far too catastrophic for there to be one program that puts it back on its feet. But, there are some obvious and practical fixes that can provide helpful revenue streams and relief that can certainly make a positive difference for these small businesses. From our perspective – and that of the nearly 8 in 10 New Yorkers who support the policy as well – drinks to-go is one of those common-sense ingredients that is part of the larger recipe for recovery for the state’s battered restaurant industry.  That’s why we have sponsored legislation and want to make this policy permanent, and are pushing to include it in this year’s New York State budget.

It was at the height of pandemic uncertainty when drinks to-go became a customer and restaurant favorite across New York. Initially implemented as an emergency order that allowed customers to add wine or their favorite cocktail to their takeout order as restaurants first emerged from lockdown, New York set the stage for the rest of the country — with dozens of other states following our lead and implementing similar programs to help the ailing industry.

Ever since the executive order lapsed, however, New York’s restaurants have been without this reliable source of revenue, while restaurants in 15 other states and Washington D.C. still have the option on the table. Some in New York’s liquor store lobby want you to think that liquor stores in those 15 states have since gone out of business, but they haven’t.  Furthermore, we’ve sought to thoughtfully balance all stakeholders’ concerns in this discussion, including, for example, a prohibition in our bill on restaurants selling full bottles of liquor and directly competing with liquor stores, even though many of these same liquor stores are permitted to sell canned cocktails that you can argue compete directly with restaurants and bars.

Yet the situation for New York’s mom and pop restaurants only gets more dire by the day.

For example, according to survey results released last week by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, 72% of the borough’s businesses continued to experience sales lower than 2019 levels, 68% reported losses of customers compared to 2019 and 41% still had slimmer employee headcounts…sobering statistics that are no doubt echoed across Queens, The Bronx and throughout the state.  While drinks to-go were allowed there was at least a glimmer of hope and hospitality businesses experienced an uptick in sales: half of businesses surveyed said drinks to-go increased their bottom line by 10-20% and the other half of businesses credited drinks to-go as increasing sales by 20% or more.   

Permanently legalizing drinks to-go once again will provide these financially-hamstrung restaurants a reliable source of revenue to help pay their employees, rent, afford utilities, and keep pace with ever-increasing daily expenses.  Permanent drinks to-go would also be a major convenience for hardworking New Yorkers who would benefit from being able to order a drink with their delivery or takeout after a long day of work. It also shouldn’t be lost on us that this proposal to allow to-go drinks is an apt opportunity to finally modernize New York’s antiquated Alcoholic Beverage Control Laws as well, some of which went on the books during Prohibition-days some 100 years ago, yet still exist today.

As we have all seen in our neighborhoods, there are countless restaurants still suffering, but we’ve got an opportunity in the New York State Legislature to provide them a reason to be hopeful.  Let’s make this important lifeline for our essential restaurant industry permanent and let’s do it now. 

Leroy Comrie represents the 14th Senatorial District in Queens and Steven Cymbrowitz represents Brooklyn’s 45th Assembly District.