Florida lawmakers pass ‘alcohol to go’

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday night to a bill that would make permanent a change allowing restaurants to sell alcoholic drinks with take-home meals.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last spring issued an executive order that included so-called “alcohol to go” to help restaurants forced to scale back operations in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has endorsed making the rule permanent.

“Cheers, members,” Rep. Josie Tomkow, a Polk City Republican who helped spearhead the bill (SB 148), said Wednesday night before the House voted 111-1 to approve it.

The final version of the bill, approved unanimously earlier Wednesday by the Senate, represented a compromise that included limits on selling alcoholic drinks with take-home and delivery orders, Senate sponsor Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.

“This amendment (the compromise) will codify the existing executive order and allow food establishments in Florida to sell mixed-drink beverages with takeout and delivery food orders,” Bradley said.

The restaurant industry, which lobbied for the permanent change, quickly praised lawmakers Wednesday night. Rep. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, cast the only dissenting vote.

“We are so pleased for the final passage of SB 148,” Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in a statement. “Alcohol to go continues to be an important source of revenue for restaurants that are struggling to survive.”

The bill would require cutting off the sale of to-go drinks --- mixed or in bottles --- when restaurants’ scheduled food service ends for the day or at midnight, whichever occurs first.

Drinks would need to be placed in secured containers and placed in locked compartments, vehicle trunks or in areas behind the last upright seats in vehicles. Restaurants would be prohibited from including alcoholic drinks in orders being delivered by people under age 21.

The to-go option would be available to restaurants that have special alcoholic-beverage licenses and derive at least 51 percent of revenue from food and non-alcoholic sales. For restaurants with regular “quota” licenses, food and non-alcoholic drinks would have to account for 60 percent of the orders.

“The Senate’s goal has always been to capture true food-service establishments, and I believe this compromise does that,” Bradley said.

Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association General Counsel Samantha Padgett told lawmakers in February the legislation offered a “lifeline” for restaurants.

“This is an issue of survival. The hospitality industry has been devastated by the pandemic,” Padgett said. “Some restaurants have closed, and they may never come back. For many that are hanging on and hanging in, alcohol to go has made all the difference.”

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