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California Lets Restaurants Sell Carryout Booze — But Most Can't Do It Anyway

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Red wine bottles on display at a liquor store in Stockholm, Sweden on December 19, 2013. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
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The state agency that oversees liquor distribution in California has temporarily relaxed its rules to let restaurants sell alcohol for off-site consumption. That means you, the consumer, can now buy beer, wine or pre-mixed cocktails from a restaurant as long as you're buying the booze with food (which you are, of course, picking up or getting delivered) and it comes in a container with a secure lid or cap.

Note: There are a few additional restrictions but nothing onerous.

This is something that restaurants and bars can't normally do so salud, right? Not exactly.

It's a great idea in theory. Alcohol sales can account for up to a third of a restaurant's sales. Plus, alcohol is less perishable than food and generally has a higher profit margin. So allowing restaurants that are already hurting due to the coronavirus shutdown to sell takeaway liquor to customers is, in the words of one bar owner I spoke to, "a no-brainer." And we're following in well-trod footsteps. New York loosened its liquor laws when it shut down its bars and restaurants earlier this week.

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Yes, here in California, we can buy booze in lots of places. Temporarily changing liquor laws like this isn't about ensuring consumer access to alcohol but about trying to do something, anything, to help restaurants during the pandemic. So what's the problem?

For many restaurants, selling carryout liquor isn't a state problem — it's a local one.

Liquor distribution is controlled by a patchwork of regulations. California's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control issues the many, many, many types of licenses you could potentially secure if you're selling alcohol. (A liquor store, for example, will have a very different kind of license than a wine bar.) In Los Angeles, restaurants already have licenses that allow them to sell alcohol to-go. So why aren't they doing it?

Because Los Angeles, both county and city, often add conditions to an establishment's permits limiting the hours they can stay open and forbidding the sales of alcohol for off-site consumption. These local restrictions don't fly out the window just because a state agency loosened its rules.

So. A handful of restaurants may benefit from ABC's temporary rule change but unless municipalities follow suit and loosen their regulations, it won't help most restaurants in Los Angeles.

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UPDATE MONDAY, MARCH 23: L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city was relaxing rules on delivery of alcoholic beverages and will now allow establishments that also serve food to do so