NH House committee hears debate over continuing takeout wine and beer sales

Bill would extend allow alcohol sales by restaurants after governor’s order ends

Beer To GoCustomers would still be able to order a large bottle of wine or 16 bottles of beer along with their takeout meal even after the pandemic emergency order ends, if Senate Bill 66 is approved by the New Hampshire Legislature.

Under the bill, restaurants would have to pay $250 for a license to do it.

The House Commerce Committee on Tuesday held a hearing on SB 66, a little over a year after Gov. Chris Sununu issued his emergency order that allowed restaurants to sell wine and beer that way.

Most restaurants have reopened, but with indoor seating limited, deliveries still make up a substantial portion of their business, and liquor could help lubricate those sales, said Mike Somers, president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association.

“We had a very tough year,” he told the panel. Sale of wine and beer, he added, “is not a big part of our business, but it is important part.”

How important?  Nobody really knows, and that concerns watchdog groups like New Futures.

“Is it high, is it working?  How many restaurants are taking advantage of it?  What is the volume? Is it effecting minors or other populations?  You can’t make any decisions unless you have the data,” said Kate Frey, the organization’s vice president of advocacy.

That is why the New Futures backed a two-year sunset provision that is included in legislation approved on March 4 in the New Hampshire Senate.

The Liquor Commission will have a better handle on the data when it sees how many restaurants are willing to apply for a license, testified its attorney, Aidan Moore.

The Lodging and Restaurant Association said it has no problem with the fee, but would like to remove the sunset clause and also wants to enact the bill without delay because if the governor ends his he emergency order, there would be a gap.

On the other hand, the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association said it would like to shorten the sunset provision to a year. It would also like to reduce the amount of liquor that can be sold “to something more compatible for a dine-in experience,” said the group’s lobbyist, Brian Moran.

The bill currently allows a restaurant to sell 1.5 liters of wine and 192 ounces of malt beverage, the same as in the governor’s order.

Somers disagreed.

“That bottle of wine is not going very far when you have five or six people over,” he said

The bill also raises a broader question: “What kind of impact will it have in our liquor system?” asked Rep. Constance Van Houten, D-Manchester.

“That’s a huge question,” said Moore. When he first started working at the commission back in 1981, there were clear lines between retail, wholesale and manufacturers, but the “lines have become blurry” over the years, and it is still not clear how that blurring will impact the state’s revenue as well as public health.

Each new bill makes this situation “more challenging to administer,” he told the committee.

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