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Michigan Lawmakers Propose Bills for To-Go Cocktails and ‘Social Districts’ for Outdoor Drinking

The bills could have a major impact on the local bar and restaurant economy

A brown Old Fashioned in a short curved glass features a black swizzle stick and a red maraschino cherry. It stands next to a yellow Walbanger in a tall curved glass with an orange slice and cherry garnish on top. Neon lights reflect off the counter.
Carryout cocktails could soon be a thing in Michigan.
Gerard + Belevender

State lawmakers introduced bills on Thursday that could finally make selling to-go cocktails legal in Michigan and allow for open containers in designated public spaces — changes that could have major implications for bars across the state.

Democratic State Senators Mallory McMorrow and Jeff Irwin introduced the legislation, which represents a big step forward for businesses and trade groups that have been campaigning since early on in the crisis for the ability to sell to-go cocktails.

Under Senate Bill No. 939, local governments would be allowed to designate “social districts” where the public could drink alcoholic beverages off-premises, similar to New Orleans. In a video statement to followers, State Senator McMorrow, a senator from Oakland County, said that the social districts would help employees and customers stay safe and maintain social distance outdoors while dining at local businesses. The space would have to be clearly marked by local municipalities, and sales and drinking would only be allowed during business hours. Businesses would be required to:

  • Obtain a $300 annual social district permit in addition to their on-premises liquor license
  • Serve their drinks out of containers clearly marked with their name or logo
  • Make sure customers don’t leave the common area with open containers

Republican House Rep. Michael Webber has also introduced a similar proposal for “social districts” that calls for a $250 permit.

Senate Bill No. 938 would allow for takeaway and delivery margaritas to become a thing. On-premises liquor licenses, such as bars and restaurants, could deliver beer, wine, mixed drinks, and spirits to customers so long as businesses operated under previously established liquor laws so long as the drinks are marked with a label stating “Contains Alcohol. Must be delivered to a person 21 years of age or older.” Straw holes would not be allowed on the containers — presumably an effort to prevent drinking in-transit from a business. Containers must be “clean, refillable, and resealable” and may not exceed one gallon.

Restaurants and bar dining rooms — with the exception of those that reopened today in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula — have been closed for dine-in service since March 16 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and limited to takeout. While some establishments hold licenses to legally sell beer and wine to-go, many do not, and the those licenses don’t allow businesses to sell cocktails. Establishments with kitchens, meanwhile, have been able to operate for food carryout and delivery. Distillers are permitted to produce hand sanitizer and sell bottled spirits to-go.

Businesses without kitchens or carryout beer and wine licenses, such as cocktail bars, were placed a distinct disadvantage from their peers, and the state has so far offered limited assistance in the form of a loan program characterized as a spirits “buyback.”

“In Michigan, you’re currently allowed to take out beer and wine, but cocktails and liquor have been prohibited and for restaurants these are high-ticket items,” McMorrow said in her recorded statement. “Alcohol sales usually make up about a third of the cash that restaurants bring in and this would also allow restaurants to keep more people on staff and more people employed, so even as the doors start to open,”

McMorrow added that the to-go liquor bill is designed help local restaurants and bars “who are struggling even though they’ve been doing takeout and delivery throughout this crisis.” She said that according to a recent projection, restaurant owners are expecting it will take between 12 and 18 months to recover from this partial shutdown of service — assuming there isn’t a second wave of COVID-19 in the state.

A frozen cocktail from the Skip, an indoor-outdoor bar in downtown Detroit.
Under a proposal, cities could create “social districts” where businesses with permits can serve open container drinks.
Stock Detroit

According to a survey conducted by Eater Detroit this week, nearly 64 percent of respondents said they are ordering takeout regularly — at least once or twice a week. Another 26 percent say they order carryout food a few times a month. At the same time close to 39 percent of respondents stated that they would buy pre-mixed carryout cocktails if they were legally offered for sale in Michigan and another 21 percent say they would consider it.

Many states including New York, Idaho, California, and Texas loosened liquor laws allowing for the sale of to-go alcoholic beverages during the pandemic in an effort to help local businesses. Just yesterday, Pennsylvania’s governor signed similar legislation into law.

“We’ve heard from a lot of you that you really like eating at home. You like a lot of the innovative things that our restaurants have been doing like cooking classes and meal kits and produce and meat and might want to continue staying home,” McMorrow said. “So this would hopefully give them an avenue to do that and for people who have the means to pay for a fancy cocktail at home that’s going to keep people working and hopefully give you something more to enjoy in the exclusive comfort of your own couch or backyard.”

The bill is now expected to proceed to the Committee on Regulatory Reform, though in a statement, Senator Irwin expressed hope that Gov. Whitmer might act more quickly with an executive order. In the meantime, maybe consider buying a cocktail kit sans the booze.

Michigan Takeaway Cocktail Bill:

Michigan Social District Bill:

Eater is tracking the impact of the novel coronavirus on the local food industry. Have a story to share? Reach out at detroit@eater.com.

Correction: A previous version of this piece misspelled the names of Sen. McMorrow and Irwin. Eater regrets the error.

Michigan Bar Owners and Distillers Petition the State to Allow Sales of To-Go Cocktails [ED]
Make Quality Cocktails at Home With These Kits From Metro Detroit Bars [ED]
Liquor Laws Loosen Up in the Face of Delivery-Only Dining [E]
Memorial Day Reopening - Sen. McMorrow [Youtube]

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