It’s been more than a week since the State of Texas made cocktails served “to go” a reality for pickup and delivery orders at pandemic-stricken restaurants and bars, with a new waiver from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott expanding the previous, less cool waiver that only allowed takeout drinks within narrow parameters — which didn’t help struggling businesses all that much since the regulatory change still required alcohol to be offered only in manufacturer-sealed containers no bigger than the fairly uncommon size of 375ml, meaning restaurants had to purchase new small bottles of liquor to even participate and couldn’t use their existing bar stock to mix drinks.
This meant local places were forced to offer those frustrating “cocktail kits” that were never going to come out as well as something mixed by a pro, especially since there was no easy way to legally sell more complicated drinks with multiple alcoholic ingredients without including several small bottles. Scratching the frozen margarita itch was great, but after seemingly endless months of social distancing it was high time for some variety, so here’s the gist of the new waiver:
Under Governor Abbott’s expanded waiver, restaurants may sell mixed beverages with take-out and delivery food orders with the following safety parameters:
• The restaurant must mix the drink onsite, combining distilled spirits with other beverages and/or garnishes.
• The restaurant must seal the mixed drink onsite with tape or an adhesive label that states the name of the restaurant and “alcoholic beverage.” The sealed mixed drink must then be placed in a bag that is sealed with a zip tie.
• Mixed drinks cannot be transported in the passenger area of a vehicle.
The requirement of placing the already-sealed drink in a zip-tied bag is a little much, but otherwise it doesn’t sound so bad. That bit about not transporting the drink in the passenger area of your vehicle means you can drive with it as long as it’s in a locked container like your glove compartment, the trunk, or the storage area behind the last row of seats in your car — doesn’t seem like anyone can explain how this works on a bike, but okay, we’re still generally on board.
Though it’s a step in the right direction, the problem here is that it’s unclear exactly how many places around town are even taking advantage of the new rules after months of dealing with the old ones — I’ve found a few places doing “real deal” mixed drinks for pickup, but not very many offering delivery so far, even though that’s now legal too. My beloved Mi Madre’s is still serving its margaritas virgin with a 50ml “mini” bottle of tequila on the side — but it looks like Taco Flats got the memo, though the drinks in the photo below haven’t yet been put in the requisite zip-tied plastic bag, which would not make them very attractive to photograph:
As we saw with the previous regulations, the level of complication involved for compliance creates an environment primed for misunderstandings and inadvertent violations of the waiver’s guidelines — and now that bars in Texas (based on the “51 percent” rule) are closed with restaurants remaining open at 50 percent capacity, there’s additional controversy over the possibility of bars with kitchens changing business models to operate instead as restaurants and open at reduced occupancy.
I caught up once again with Austin lawyer and “Margs for Life” organizer Kareem Hajjar, who represents many local restaurants and bars in the state, to see how he felt about the latest regulatory changes. “Giving retailers the ability to seal and sell their own pre-mixed cocktails is the lifeline that these bars and restaurants have needed to survive — not thrive, but survive,” he says.
“But for five days after the Governor’s order, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) would not allow bars that have kitchens to operate on a ‘to-go’ and delivery basis, despite the clear language in the Governor’s order and TABC’s own guidance.”
What about the idea of bars making changes to operate as restaurants?
“TABC is trying to interpret the Governor’s order in the most conservative way possible to prevent legitimate businesses that are not solely bars from changing their business plans to operate as restaurants — at a time where we need to be helping businesses and celebrating entrepreneurial efforts to survive this pandemic, TABC is trying as hard as they can to stifle those efforts and keep legitimate restaurants with full kitchens that can operate at a minimum of 51% food receipts from doing so,” Hajjar says. “This will only result in more businesses closing, more people losing their livelihoods, more jobs lost, and more unemployment filings.”
I’m personally not going to be comfortable eating at a dine-in restaurant for a very long time, but with the looming threat of overwhelming closures of local business it’s probably a concept worth re-examining — don’t let those “Bar Lives Matter” people distract you from the real possibility of businesses like bars restructuring their operations to survive, like restaurants pivoting to grocery sales.
Of course, we probably wouldn’t need to have this conversation if the Paycheck Protection Program providing federal aid for small businesses wasn’t by all accounts a slow-motion trainwreck, but that doesn’t mean the state government can’t continue efforts to offset the ruinous effects of necessary but devastating pandemic-fighting measures on every non-chain restaurant and bar you like. So maybe try ordering a takeout cocktail this week — and while you’re resisting the overwhelming urge to open it in your car, remind yourself what you’re holding is evidence of a struggle that’s far from over, as coronavirus numbers in Texas reach for all-time highs.