DOVER — A measure created to help restaurants and bars during the COVID-19 pandemic may become a permanent law as a result of Tuesday morning’s General Assembly House Administration Committee session.
House Bill 290, sponsored by House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, would remove a sunset provision to a policy allowing bars and restaurants to sell to-go alcoholic beverages and utilize extended outdoor seating. The policy was designed to allow customers to support their favorite bars and restaurants during the ongoing pandemic.
The to-go rules are slated to expire at the end of March unless the sunset provision is removed.
“This is one of the positive things that have come out of COVID. We found that there are ways to adapt … I don’t see any reason why we can’t go ahead and move forward and take the sunset out, so we don’t have to revisit this every year,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said Tuesday.
The General Assembly responded to the challenges created by the pandemic in 2020 by allowing food and drink establishments to offer increased outdoor seating and to-go alcohol sales. The legislature extended those provisions in 2021 through March 2022.
If it becomes law, HB 290 would allow any restaurant, brewpub, tavern or taproom, or other entity with a valid on-premise license, to sell alcoholic beverages for take-out, curbside or drive-thru service.
While the bill has many supporters, Tuesday’s committee hearing heard some pushback from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission and other legislators.
What HB 290 does, in its current form, is allow current licensed purveyors the ability to circumvent the ABC’s existing outdoor seating process. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants and bars had to apply for the ability to serve outside through a public process that called for public comment. It also bypasses a $1,000 fee — paid every two years — for the patio license.
“If the sunset is lifted, it will essentially create two parallel structures where you’ll have extension of outdoor seating and patio seating and there’s no fee for that extension,” said Jackie Mette, ABC commissioner, at Tuesday’s committee hearing.
Rep. Paul S. Baumbach, D-Newark, expressed concerns with the bill’s removal of the public input portion of the patio licensing process. He urged his fellow lawmakers to keep the sunset in place.
“With no opportunity for public opposition being voiced I think is a step backward,” Rep. Baumbach said.
In response, Rep. Schwartzkopf said he plans to introduce another bill at a later time that would create a fee system for businesses to participate in to-go and outdoor services.
To-go cocktails have been a popular innovation to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many restaurant leaders credit the law with helping them through the recent downturn.
“I think that restaurants are one of the industries that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the shutdowns and the restrictions. We are very grateful that Speaker Schwartzkopf is in touch with a big part of his constituents who are in the tourism, restaurant, hospitality business. We greatly appreciate his efforts to continue to make sure we have a healthy, vibrant hospitality industry here in southern Delaware and throughout the whole state,” said Scott Kammerer, president of SoDel concepts, which owns many restaurants and brewpubs in Delaware.
In 2019, restaurant and food industry jobs in Delaware totaled 50,800. Between February and April 2020, Delaware lost 66% of its food or drink establishment jobs, one of the highest rates in the nation.
“While the pandemic has been extremely challenging for families and businesses across the state and country, it also has forced us to get creative at times. Restaurants and bars were among the hardest-hit industries these past two years, and we had to use some ingenuity to provide assistance,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf. “The outdoor dining and to-go cocktails options have been extremely popular and have allowed restaurants and bars to serve patrons safely. These innovations are about to expire, but even as this health crisis continues, it’s clear that there is a market and a desire for these practices to continue for good.”
“I think any opportunities for restaurateurs to increase their sales and increase their ability to connect with their guests is a really wonderful thing. I think it is going to be a piece of the puzzle. I think it is greatly appreciated,” Mr. Kammerer said. “But we worry about the mask mandate that came down today (Jan. 11) and future restrictions. So, we hope that state government is available to support and help restaurants as time goes on, in addition to this bill.”
The measure passed the House Administration Committee and will now go forward for debate on the House floor. If it passes that step, it will go on to be heard by the state Senate before it can be signed into law by Gov. John Carney.
Rep. Schwartzkopf said he would like to have the bill approved before the current sunset period ends in March.
Staff writer Glenn Rolfe contributed to this story.