By Bob Katz
A bill designed to help revive and stimulate the restaurant industry during the COVID-19 pandemic passed the House 156-0 more than a month ago on June 3. The Senate has yet to act on the proposal.
The measure would allow restaurants to sell sealed containers of mixed drinks with take-out and delivery orders. A new law passed in April allows restaurants and bars to sell limited quantities of beer and wine, in their original containers, with takeout and delivery orders. The new law did not include mixed drinks. Restaurants are still barred from serving customers liquor or food in their dining rooms under a March executive order from Gov. Baker.
The House-approved measure requires orders for cocktails to be placed by midnight or earlier if the establishment closes before that. The measure defines mixed drinks as a drink sealed in a container holding up to 64 fluid ounces of liquor and a mixer that have been combined.
“We’re getting feedback, we’re pulling together information and possibly other areas that we may want to add to it, but that is clearly on our radar and we are working on it,” Senate President Karen Spilka (D-Ashland) told the State House News Service last week.
“Restaurants are among the hardest, if not the most, impacted businesses by the Coronavirus shutdown,” said Steve Clark, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA). “Allowing mixed drinks to go is another tool for restaurants to attempt to increase revenue opportunities. We hope Massachusetts joins the other neighboring states in authorizing this legislation. There is just something about a professionally made cocktail that can’t be replicated at home.”
Another key provision would cap delivery fees by third parties like GrubHub, DoorDash and Uber Eats at 15 percent of the order price until 45 days after the COVID-19 state of emergency ends. When the pandemic struck, many restaurants were not equipped to offer online ordering or delivery and are forced to rely heavily on these delivery companies.
“Third-party delivery companies have been a source of frustration for our industry, with reports of these platforms charging up to a 30 percent commission on individual orders,” said the MRA’s Clark. “Due to the current situation, regulating the transparency of these platforms is more important than ever. As restaurants look for new ways to survive with increased takeout and delivery, third-party delivery companies will play a prominent role. That prominent role will need increased regulation to ensure transparency and fairness for all who utilize these platforms.”
The delivery companies argue that arbitrarily limiting fees to 15 percent is unfair. They said the cap will mean that they will have to charge their customers more or pay their delivery drivers less.
Gov. Baker expressed support for the bill’s passage. He said he did not know why it appears to have stalled out but attributed the lack of movement to a disagreement of some sort between the branches.
“We supported the restaurant bill when it was originally proposed, and that’s one of those elements I would hope would make it through the process,” Baker said. “In fairness, the Legislature, despite the difficulty of the framework through which they have to operate now, has passed a lot of legislation that’s provided significant support to many businesses and a lot of communities around Massachusetts over the course of the past 90 days or so. But we certainly support the restaurant bill and think it would be a good thing.”
The measure also allows cities and towns to authorize some changes to state licensing and local zoning procedures in order to make it easier and faster for restaurants to open outdoor seating. Another provision would temporarily waive late fees for any restaurants that are behind on paying the revenue from the meals tax to the state.