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Pols push for “To Go” Drinks

The commercial corridors of Jackson Heights are lined with one of the city’s most diverse dining scenes.

But for many small businesses, like Mojito’s Restaurant and Bar, staying afloat during a pandemic is proving to be costly and challenging.

Owner Marcos Munuoz says it has been the temporary relief funds and legislation, which allows for the sale of alcoholic drinks to-go, that have been vital lifelines to staying open.

First signed as an executive order in March 2020, the 15-month temporary legislation of drinks-to-go expired in June 2021.

NY State Governor Kathy Hochul said in her State of the State address, back in January, that her administration intends to make the temporary program a permanent one in her upcoming budget proposal. But after the issue was left out of the latest Assembly and Senate budget plans, the return of the popular pandemic measure may have to wait before the rules and regulations of the program are made by the State Liquor Authority.

Having closed for two months at the start of the pandemic, Munoz says his Latin fusion restaurant at 81-01 Northern Boulevard is starting to “fall apart again.”

“It’s not that we want it, we really need it,” Munoz said of the drinks-to-go initiative.

Munoz was joined by elected officials to call for the once-temporary program to return indefinitely.

NY State Senator Jessica Ramos, who also chairs the labor committee, said that no other industry had it harder throughout the pandemic than restaurants. She agrees that measures should be passed to make to-go drinks a permanent revenue-generator for businesses like Mojito’s.

“There were seemingly laws changed every week, new executive orders, new changes to the way they were allowed to build outdoor seating, and they had to pivot and adopt at every corner at every step of the way,” said Ramos, a high school classmate of Munoz.

“And because of that many restaurants in our community and across the city and state have seen dwindling profit margins, which of course translates to fewer jobs in our communities and less access to food in many corners of our state,” Ramos said.

Ramos is the prime co-sponsor of a senate bill (S.8184) which would make the drinks-to-go program permanent.

Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas pointed to a statewide survey of 700 New Yorkers conducted by the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA), which found more than 78 percent in support of alcohol-to-go becoming permanent. Another survey by the NYSRA found that 98 percent of restaurant operators would resume offering drinks-to-go if the program was made permanent.

“When I talk about my district, I tell folks, I don’t have a library, I don’t have a hospital, I don’t have a community center, I don’t have a senior center and I don’t have NYCHA,” said Gonzalez-Rojas, whose district includes the heart of Jackson Heights and parts of Woodside and Elmhurst.

“But what I do have are the best restaurants in New York City,” she said.

In Woodside, Neir’s Tavern hosted a similar press conference with the NYSRA last month, where unified calls were made for the legislation to be included in the final budget.

On the two-year anniversary of the enacted emergency orders that shuttered all restaurants, NYSRA President and CEO Melissa Fleischut reflected on how the industry has maneuvered throughout the pandemic.

“Two years ago, no one could have anticipated the plight that laid ahead for our industry. Restaurants quickly pivoted to robust take-out programs to keep from drowning. For 15 months, alcohol-to-go allowed restaurants to survive by offering customers their full menu offerings as we were hampered by various restrictions and the rise of variants,” Fleischut said. “Alcohol-to-go is critical to the recovery of our $50-billion industry and has the support of 78 percent of New Yorkers. We know there is support in both houses and we urge the state to include alcohol-to-go in the final enacted budget.”

Pressure to make ‘to go’ drinks permanent

Restaurant owners say temporary move was COVID lifeline

BY DANIEL OFFNER

Local restaurant owners are putting pressure on state lawmakers to make alcoholic beverages “to go” a permanent fixture in their establishments.

“We suffered a 90 percent decline in revenue when the first shutdown went into effect… and it has been a rollercoaster ride ever since,” Loycent Gordon, the owner of Neir’s Tavern in Woodhaven said.

The policy was put into effect as part of the New York State emergency order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a means to try and help struggling restaurants stay afloat.

When the emergency order expired last summer, so too did restaurants and bars serving “to go” cocktails and wine.

Historic Neir’s Tavern in Woodhaven, Queens, N.Y.

“This has been one of the lifelines that we needed that unfortunately expired,” Gordon said. “Alcohol to go is going to be one of those things that can help to add an additional revenue stream in a time where we have gone through so much and actually incurred so much debt.”

The New York State Restaurant Association held simultaneous press conferences with bar and restaurant owners all across the state to try and persuade legislators to adopt Gov. Hochul’s Executive Budget proposal, which they said includes a provision that would allow the sale of “to go” drink orders permanently.

Last June, state lawmakers attempted to pass a similar measure allowing “to go” drinks to be a permanent fixture, but according to The New York Times, it was thwarted by lobbyists with the liquor store industry, which had directed tens of thousands of dollars in political donations.

Dan Connor, the owner of Donovan’s Pub in Woodside, said he didn’t know why the liquor industry was fighting restaurant and bar owners over the sale of cocktails and wine to go after experiencing record sales numbers during the pandemic.

“I’m not sure why the liquor industry is fighting us on this,” Connor said. “We’re not selling bottles.”

Melissa Fleishut, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association said that the same relief that was once needed at the height of the pandemic is still necessary now.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, struggling restaurants were able to boost sales and keep doors open through the ability of selling alcoholic beverages with their orders,” Fleischut said. “The restaurant industry needs stability now more than ever, and by making ‘alcohol-to-go’ permanent we can encourage a strong recovery. It’s popular with operators and customers alike. The numbers don’t lie.”

According to a study conducted by the association, out of the 700 New Yorkers polled, approximately 78 percent were in favor of such a law.

“It makes no sense whatsoever,” Arelia Taveras, president of the New York State Latino Restaurant Association, said. “We need to have equality and fairness in this industry.”

Taveras said that before the pandemic there were close to 26,000 restaurants in New York and now more than half are gone, many of which were in underserved communities.

“It’s increasing crime. There’s no employment. I mean, what are we doing here,” Taveras added. “Let’s let restaurants breathe. If anything they should be advocating for loosening the laws on restaurants so that everybody can come back.”

Monir Zamel, the owner of Andrew’s Coffee Shop in Midtown, has been in business since the 60s and 70s. During that time his business weathered several catastrophes including multiple recessions, 9/11, and Superstorm Sandy.

“I’ve never seen anything that impacted my business the same way that COVID-19 has,” Zamel said. “It was like living in a nightmare.”

Calls for response from the New York State Liquor Store Association were not returned as of press time.

Plans for a policy to enable restaurants and bar owners to serve cocktails and wine “to go” will be decided on by state lawmakers as part of the state budget.

Hochul’s budget proposal also includes a Restaurant Resiliency Program, aimed at providing $25 million in grant funding to restaurants providing meals to distressed and underrepresented communities, and a Restaurant “Return-To-Work” tax credit for small independently owned restaurants.

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