One of the few things keeping people sane (and businesses going) through the coronavirus lockdown is Governor Jared Polis's order allowing restaurants, bars, breweries and distilleries to continue selling booze to go and for delivery.
But since he also loosened some of the usual restrictions on how alcohol can be sold, and by whom — through April 16 at least, but possibly much longer — the state's booze scene has taken on a bit of a Wild West feel. For a week or two, consumers were showing up at their favorite watering holes with all manner of flasks, flagons, jars, jugs, cups, canteens, pails, pots, buckets and beakers, asking for them to be filled. And most businesses were happy to oblige.
But the sheriff, in the form of Colorado's Liquor Enforcement Division, finally showed up to affirm that there are indeed some rules — even if some of them seem confusing. It did so in the form of two bulletins sent on April 1 and April 2 to any business in the state with a liquor license.
The most controversial clarification in these bulletins: While manufacturers, such as breweries, cideries, wineries and distilleries, can continue to "refill" growlers — typically 32- or 64-ounce glass jugs that customers own — as well as other containers, bars and restaurants may not. Instead, they are only allowed to sell alcohol to go in single-use containers, like plastic cups.
This came as bad news to a number of bars and restaurants, especially those that focus on craft beer. That's because some of them had been encouraging beer drinkers to bring in their growlers for big pours — which would help these restaurants reduce their inventory now that people aren't allowed to drink inside. Otherwise, some of the kegs would have to be dumped as the beer got old.
Chris Black, owner of Falling Rock Tap House, was particularly concerned, since he has 85 taps and caters to drinkers who like unusual, rare and hoppy beers. The new interpretation of the rule threatened to do him in, he said. And he wasn't alone: Other restaurateurs expressed their frustration as well, both to LED and on social media.
Before Polis's emergency declaration on March 20, restaurants weren't allowed to sell any booze to go (aside from one or two limited exceptions), while booze manufacturers have always been able to do so.
The reason for the clarification of that declaration was safety, says LED deputy director Michelle Stone-Principato. "LED heard restaurants were telling customers to purchase growlers and bring [them] in," she explains. "Due to the COVID-19, this is not a safe practice. LED did not want on-premises establishments to be shut down because we are not taking safety precautions seriously. LED has fought very hard to keep all of the liquor industry open during this public health crisis."
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But while restaurants cannot refill growlers or any other containers a customer brings in, they can use just about any other vessel. "We did not provide an extensive list so on-premise accounts could use what they currently have on hand, rather than having to buy products during this ever-evolving situation," Stone-Principato says. Some restaurants are using plastic cups with lids, while others are using Mason jars, plastic cartons or jugs of all sizes.
Still, there are some limits. For starters: No straws! If lids have holes for straws, they should be taped over. In fact, owing to open-container laws, LED regulations require that all to-go vessels be "affixed" with a label (in at least a 14-point font, please!) warning consumers not to open or remove the seal while they are driving.
Another prohibition: No Ziploc bags. Yes, Stone-Principato says the division received word that at least one spot tried that.
"These are dynamic circumstances and...we are trying to respond to this emergency in the best way that we can and with what we have," she concludes. "The rules are fluid, and we are always adjusting."