A rule change spurred by the pandemic allowing Arkansas restaurants, liquor stores and breweries to deliver alcoholic beverages to customers will become state law at the end of this month.
Act 158, which allows liquor permit holders to deliver alcoholic beverages directly to the private residence of a consumer age 21 or older in a “wet” county, and Act 703, which authorizes restaurants with alcoholic beverage permits to deliver to consumers, both codify temporary agency rules that were in place during the state of emergency in Arkansas.
The measures were among 10 bills pertaining to alcohol sales that passed during this year’s legislative session.
On March 17, 2020, Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order that in part directed “all state agencies to identify provisions of any regulatory statute, agency order or rule that in any way prevents, hinders, or delays the agency’s ability to render maximum assistance to the citizens of this state while they are adhering to guidelines to prohibit the spread of disease.”
Pursuant to that order, the state Department of Finance and Administration made a temporary rule change allowing restaurants licensed to sell beer and wine to include those products with delivery of food items in counties where liquor sales are legal, but did not permit the establishments to deliver liquor. Liquor stores, distilleries, small breweries and small farm wineries were also allowed to offer delivery.
Act 703 goes further than those rules, allowing restaurants to deliver to consumers or allow them to take to-go up to 32 ounces of a mixed drink. The law also limits delivered or to-go beer sales to a standard six-pack and wine sales to one bottle.
The order and temporary rule changes expired May 30, when Hutchinson allowed the state’s public health emergency declaration to come to an end.
“Both the restaurant industry and the liquor industry expressed an interest in continuing that option,” Scott Hardin, spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration, said last month.
Jack Sundell, co-owner of Mockingbird Bar & Tacos and The Root Cafe in downtown Little Rock, said many restaurants took advantage of the opportunity to serve beer and wine with to-go orders during the pandemic.
“Everyone who was doing to-go, I think, was selling alcohol,” he said in an interview last week. “People see it as a service, to be able to get the food and the thing they want to drink.”
Sundell said Mockingbird will likely make use of Act 703’s mixed-drink provision by selling batch cocktails such as margaritas for people to serve at dinner parties.
Act 158 had the support of the United Beverage Retailers of Arkansas, which represents about 80 liquor stores throughout the state, as well as the Arkansas Brewers Guild. Quentin Willard, founder and operator of Fort Smith Brewing Co., said the rule change “single-handedly saved my company.” Proponents of the bill also said it would prevent people from getting on the road to pick up more alcohol after they’ve been drinking, since they could call the store or brewery instead.
“The typical people that buy our product are in the older generation. They’ve accumulated enough wealth to enjoy a spirit or two from time to time, and they also happen to be the target of this terrible virus,” Willard told the House Rules Committee in February. “In the industry, drunk driving is a big fear of ours. This bill absolutely would protect against that.”
Teresa Belew, a former executive director of the Arkansas chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, testified against the bill in committee, saying lawmakers should look at the “difference between profit and prevention” when it comes to access to alcohol for children, citing a survey showing that more than half of youths get alcohol from friends, relatives or siblings who purchased it rather than by using fake IDs.
“This is a continuation of an emergency proclamation that was not even sanctioned by our Legislature, so I want you to think and ask yourself, would I have voted for this measure had the pandemic not happened? Would I have seen this as a good policy and a good protective factor for my children if the pandemic had not happened?” she said.
It also requires that the delivery be made by an employee of the business, so entities such as Walgreens that use third-party services to deliver alcohol would not be able to have home delivery. Sen. Jane English, the lead sponsor of both alcohol delivery bills, noted in a January committee meeting that the bill excludes grocery stores and big-box retailers such as Walmart Inc.
Act 158, then Senate Bill 32, passed 18-9 in the Senate and 67-21 in the House. The bill failed 48-23 the first time House sponsor Rep. Karilyn Brown, R-Sherwood, took it before the chamber, but that vote was expunged, allowing her to run the bill again.
Act 703, then Senate Bill 339, passed 21-11 in the Senate and 64-11 in the House.
English said Friday that “it’s hard to get alcohol stuff through the Legislature.”
“I think they just realized it was a good business model, it was a good-for business thing,” she said.
More than 20 states this year passed measures allowing alcohol delivery or carry-out, or expanding liquor permit holders’ ability to provide that service, according to information provided last week by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 35 states began allowing restaurants and bars to sell mixed drinks to-go during the pandemic, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Fifteen states, including Arkansas, as well as Washington, D.C., have made that change permanent.
Of Arkansas’ 75 counties, 44 are wet, meaning the residents have voted to allow retail liquor sales. There are 457 retail liquor permits in the state, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration.
Act 158 has no emergency clause and takes effect July 28.
Act 703 states that Alcoholic Beverage Control must submit the necessary rules to the Legislative Council on or before Jan. 1, 2022.
In “dry” counties, where residents have not voted to allow retail liquor sales, establishments that serve alcohol can operate under private club permits. House Bill 1228, now Act 874, allows those businesses to create outdoor entertainment districts.
Legislation passed in 2019 allows cities in wet counties to create districts in commercially zoned areas where people can carry open containers of alcoholic beverages. Act 874’s sponsor, Rep. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, creates the same pathway for establishments in dry areas that want to have that opportunity, he said.
Johnson said the request came from constituents in Barling, a city in a dry section of Sebastian County. Half of the county allows retail alcohol sales and the other half does not.
He said the law could also be used by businesses in cities such as Jonesboro, Van Buren and Russellville that are in dry counties.
Such districts would still require approval of the local governing body, and Johnson emphasized that the law would not create any new alcohol sales and doesn’t take away local control.
“I think it’ll improve the businesses in the area that are utilizing that,” he said in an interview last week.
Larry Page, director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, called the bill “an affront to those people” who voted for their counties to be dry.
Alcoholic Beverage Control “imposed private clubs on dry counties against the will of the local people,” he told the House Rules Committee in February. “People in dry counties don’t want to see people coming out of these establishments, these so-called private clubs with mixed drinks, beer, wine.”
Act 874 takes effect July 28.
Lawmakers also passed Act 68, which will allow excursion trains to serve alcohol to riders.
The sponsor, Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, said the legislation, originally Senate Bill 76, came about at the request of one of Northwest Arkansas’ top tourist attractions, an excursion train operated by the Arkansas Missouri Railroad. The railroad is used mainly for commercial transport, but a passenger train on the railroad track is used for sightseeing tours.
Act 68 allows an operator of such an excursion train to apply for a permit from Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Eads said in an interview last week that the law is twofold, since it will allow the trains to provide an additional service to passengers, as well as manage how much alcohol is being served and to whom.
Currently, the trains are allowed to rent out train rooms for private parties that can provide their own alcohol, but the train operators don’t have the authority to regulate it, which the Alcoholic Beverage Control permit would give them.
The law states that the Alcoholic Beverage Control must submit the necessary rules to the Legislative Council on or before Jan. 1, 2022.