If you like picking up beer or cocktails “to go” during the pandemic, you’ll be able to keep doing so if House Bill 226 passes.
“I’ve heard this dubbed the ‘drive-through Margarita’ bill, but none of those businesses exist,” said Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings.
Tuesday, the House Business and Labor committee held a hearing on the bill, which aims to make curbside pickup permanently legal. In her introduction, Zolnikov said former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, approved curbside pickup last March to allow places such as bars, restaurants and breweries to sell alcohol to go, similar to the way restaurants sell food to go.
“Previously this was not legal,” Zolnikov said. “It proved as a lifeline for a lot of businesses.”
In fact, she said one business in Billings told her curbside sales were “through the roof,” and the alternative was dismal: “If they weren’t allowed to do this, there was no way they could stay in business.”
The pandemic has obliterated income for bars and restaurants even though people are buying a lot more alcohol elsewhere. A temporary stay-at-home order meant people weren’t going out for part of the year, and social distancing measures also mean establishments have operated at limited capacity.
At the hearing, representatives from different industry groups expressed surprise they all could agree on a bill related to alcohol. Brad Griffin, head of the Montana Retail Association, described the bill as a “rare unicorn” with overwhelming support across sectors of the industry.
“Those of you who have been here for a while know that that doesn’t happen very often,” Griffin said.
Despite the nickname of the bill, Zolnikov said she knows of just one drive-through business that sells alcohol in Montana. She also said the bill isn’t about allowing open containers; beverages are placed in sealable containers for transport.
“It does not legalize drinking in the car,” Zolnikov said.
John Iverson, with the Montana Tavern Association, said the biggest users of the bill likely will be grocery stores, which can bring a pack of beer to a customer’s car along with their groceries, a practice he said is already legal in many other states. He also said he doesn’t anticipate drive-throughs cropping up.
“Nobody in the Tavern Association membership has reached out to me and expressed interest in operating a drive-through window,” Iverson said.
In addition to allowing curbside pickup, the bill would let businesses that are difficult to reach pick up their alcohol orders from distributors. Kristi Blazer, with the Montana Beer and Wine Distributors Association, said her suppliers’ trucks can’t reach, for example, a shop located on top of a ski hill. There’s “room for mischief” if a lift operator hops on a snowmobile to complete the journey, she said, and this bill would let those businesses arrange to pick up their orders.
“Montana is a great and wild state and has some very fun retailers,” Blazer said.
Supporters of the bill also included the Montana Brewers Association, the Gaming Industry Association of Montana, and the Montana Distillers Guild. Americans for Prosperity backed the bill too.
But Sen. Neil Duram, R-Eureka, noted in an exchange with the Montana Department of Transportation that alcohol related fatalities were up in Montana last year. A DOT representative said final numbers for 2020 were not yet available, but preliminary counts show increases in impaired driving crashes for the year; also, last January, seven people died in alcohol related fatalities on roadways, and this year, 14 died the same month, the DOT said.
Iverson, though, said when the hospitality industry was closed during the pandemic, DUIs went up. People like to blame bars for the problem, but he said the trend shows responsible sales and service works, such as professional bartenders doing ID checks — when establishments are open.
“The hospitality industry does a good job of taking care of their patrons,” Iverson said.
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