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California Extends Cocktails-To-Go Through End of Year, Newsom Announces

Eater SF caught up with the governor at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant to answer some lingering cocktail concerns 

Exterior neon sign of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in the Richmond neighborhood

Governor Gavin Newsom announced today, June 3, that California will allow restaurants and bars to continue selling to-go cocktails, as well as alcohol in parklets, at least through the end of the year. Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed held a press conference together at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, that multigenerational margarita institution in the Richmond. Regrettably, the governor did not throw back any margs, but he did announce some good news, in that he’s extending a couple of temporary emergency orders that were made at the beginning of the pandemic to allow more time for a couple of bills to keep moving through the state legislature.

“We don’t want to go back to normal. Normal was never good enough,” Newsom said. “ … parklets [and to-go cocktails] have saved bars and restaurants through the pandemic, and they have revitalized neighborhoods, and we want to keep that going for years and years.”

With California fully reopening for business less than two weeks away on June 15, many restaurants and bars have been left wondering about the finer details, including when these kinds of temporary emergency measures might expire. Restaurants and bars have spent thousands of dollars building out parklets, stacking up takeout containers, and trial-and-erroring different business models during the pandemic, and they’re now eager to keep ringing in drink tabs to recover from lost sales. Today’s announcement should be reassuring news, at least for the next six months and allows more time for permanent legislation to be approved.

California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) temporarily approved cocktails-to-go in March of 2020, easing the rules around cocktails for takeout and delivery. For the past year, restaurants and bars have been allowed to sell to-go wine, beer, and cocktails, provided they’re in a container with a secure lid and also served with food. The measure has been helpful, although bars that don’t serve food scrambled to find food partners in order to meet that sticky requirement. There was also no set end date for this temporary suspension; the ABC simply said “until further notice,” leaving bar owners with a certain amount of anxiety as we’ve moved into reopening.

Senator Bill Dodd in Napa introduced State Bill 398 back in February, proposing to make cocktails-to-go permanent. That bill has already been approved by the State Senate and is now up for a vote in the State Assembly, at which point it will move to Governor Newsom’s desk for final approval. But in the meantime, the governor is stepping in and offering an extension of the temporary emergency order through the end of the year, effective through December 31, 2021. He described it as a “stop-gap solution,” both to give the bill more time to move through the legislative process and to relieve anxiety for restaurant and bar owners. “We’re extending out of concern of a gap,” the governor told Eater SF. “Bottom line, we just want to give the legislature time to get it right.”

Newsom also says the state is “getting out of the way” if cities and counties would like to continue shared spaces, although the question of whether parklets will be a permanent fixture in San Francisco is a more complicated issue that’s still up for a predictably contentious local debate. But for now, at least the governor confirmed that restaurants and bars are allowed to continue serving alcohol in parklets through the end of the year, on that same timeline. Serving beer, wine, or cocktails in a parklet during the pandemic required getting a special temporary permit from ABC, and again, it was not clear when those temporary permits would expire.

Senator Scott Weiner in San Francisco also introduced State Bill 314 around the same time this winter, proposing to ease restrictions on outdoor dining, which would not only make parklets permanent but also make serving alcohol in parklets easier, only relying on existing liquor licenses. The extension announced today will allow that bill time to move along.

In an exclusive interview with Eater SF, Governor Newsom confirmed that no business owners have to go out and get a new license or permit right now and that this extends those temporary permits that have already been issued to keep businesses serving alcohol in a parklet through the end of the year. He could not offer a firm update on the food requirement for to-go cocktails, which is still baked into Senator Dodd’s proposed bill, although he said that provision was still up for discussion. “Those are all being reviewed by legislature, components are being reviewed by the ABC ... but those regulations that were in effect remain in effect for the moment,” he says.

In terms of the larger questions and concerns surrounding reopening, and when San Francisco restaurant and bar owners would be getting more guidance and details on what exactly is going to happen on June 15, the governor made a handwashing motion, threw up his hands, and said it was up to Mayor London Breed and the San Francisco Department of Health (SFDPH) to confirm those local details. “Look, I’m the governor of California, not the mayor of California,” Newsom says, explaining that cities and counties across the state have to make their own local decisions. “What the state is doing is removing any statewide restrictions … I’m no longer mayor [of San Francisco]. I will defer to the mayor, mayor’s office, and DPH.”

However, it is worth noting that our governor is the founder of the PlumpJack Winery group, which makes him the owner of several bars in San Francisco, including Balboa Cafe, White Rabbit, and Wildhawk. He says he has a lifelong passion for the hospitality industry and offered his sympathies to his fellow bar owners in San Francisco. “It’s been a hell of a year. I have a deep respect, empathy, and understanding for the anxiety and stress,” he says, regarding what restaurant and bar owners have endured this year — from the financial and emotional burden to the unforgiving margins, staffing issues, unrelenting landlords, and loss of talent, as cooks and bartenders have left the industry.

And so while these two extensions are still temporary solutions, they might offer some relief. “We are grateful to the ABC and to Governor Newsom for their proactive support,” says Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), the local industry lobbying group. “We need this certainty and clarity that we will be able to continue to operate in these outdoor spaces and legally serve alcohol, until more permanent legislation can be enacted. We continue to support SB 389, Senator Dodd’s bill for cocktails to go and SB 314, Senator Weiner’s bill to allow alcohol to be served in outdoor public spaces, both of which are moving through the legislature now.”