By: Allyson Lonas
Establishments that serve alcohol need to be mindful of health protocols during Covid-19 and also of the new pandemic-related Liquor License laws. We covered in a previous post, the rules a restaurant entrepreneur needs to follow in opening an alcohol-serving establishment. In this post, the focus will be on the new pandemic-related laws and the enforcement of them.
governors’ responses to COVID-19 and liquor licenses
In numerous states, governors and local governments have threatened liquor license repercussions for business owners who do not follow new pandemic-related laws. For example, in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo stated that any establishment that receives three violations of COVID-19 guidelines would be closed for business. And entrepreneurs living in Pennsylvania need to monitor county phasing to avoid harsh consequences.
When the pandemic began, Pennsylvania Governor Wolf had outlined a reopening plan that included three phases: red, yellow, and green.
During the red phase, a restaurant could only provide takeout or delivery sales. The service of food or beverages on the premises was not permitted. However, during the yellow and green phase, bar and restaurant owners are allowed to provide takeout and delivery as well as dine-in services, as long as they adhere to the new pandemic-related laws.
the Pennsylvania pandemic-related liquor laws
On June 18, 2020, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) issued guidance to licensed liquor establishments for resuming on-premise alcohol service in counties in the yellow and green phases. A licensee who failed to comply with the requirements could receive citations. A notice of violation precedes an administrative citation and provides a licensee with time to prepare a defense or the necessary remedy.
Right now, the requirements for those serving alcohol include:
- Mandating the wearing of masks
- Providing at least six feet between parties at tables
- Ensuring that maximum occupancy limits are observed
Occupancy limits are dependent on the restaurant and each owner should be informed on the limit of their establishment.
To ensure directives are being followed, compliance checks will occur unannounced, and the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement will patrol establishments.
If found in violation, your restaurant could incur penalties, including fines and possible suspension or revocation of your liquor license. Even a simple citation could put your business’s liquor license at risk when renewing your application with the PLCB. Therefore, it is essential to stay up-to-date with COVID-19 guidelines and implement any necessary changes to your establishment to avoid losing your liquor license.
other guidelines for entrepreneurs in the service industry
Other restrictions in place include the prohibition of ordinary alcohol service unless the facility offers sit-down, dine-in meals, or serves take-out sales of alcoholic beverages.
Alcohol may only be served with a meal in the establishment. However, you can serve a cocktail-to-go! On May 21, 2020, Governor Wolf signed House Bill 327, now Act 21 of 2020, to allow the temporary sale of cocktails-to-go from a restaurant, hotel, or bar with a liquor license before 11 pm. The law applies to establishments who have lost twenty-five percent of average monthly total sales during the emergency and will expire when a business reaches 60% capacity and the emergency ends. Cocktail-to-go sizes can range from 4 oz. to 64 oz. But your drinks must be sold in containers with a secure lid and an additional seal is required on the straw opening of a lid. The PLCB provides additional guidelines.
In the restaurant industry, it is encouraged to have a specific COVID-19 prevention plan and to implement it within your establishment. This includes utilizing reservations, using single-use disposable menus, and keeping condiments off the table. Be sure to close or remove amenities that are non-essential to the preparation of food or service. As a general rule, consider including physical barriers between your employees and customers to help keep everyone safe. As a restaurant or bar owner, it is your responsibility to schedule closure periods throughout the day to allow time for cleaning and disinfecting. If you do not follow these regulations, not only will you risk losing your liquor license, but you could lose your entire establishment.
the good news
Over the summer, restaurant and bar owners teamed up and requested the governor raise capacity limits. And on September 8, Governor Wolf announced revised mandates to take effect starting September 21. Indoor capacity restrictions are now increased from twenty-five percent to fifty percent.
If you choose to increase your capacity, you will have to participate in a self-certification process to demonstrate compliance in protecting guests and workers. Participating establishments will appear in a searchable online database and can show that they are following orders through a self-certification process. The Wolf Administration said you should complete the self-certification process by October 5 when enforcement tied to the new seating capacity will begin. Documents and information can be found on the Open & Certified Pennsylvania program and will contain the following:
- A list of requirements contained in the current restaurant industry guidance
- A statement that an owner has reviewed and agrees to follow the requirements;
- The business’ maximum indoor occupancy number;
- A statement that the owner understands certification is subject to penalties for unsworn falsification to authorities
Make sure to keep a copy of the self-certification confirmation and you will also be sent mailed Open & Certified Pennsylvania branded materials to display for patrons.
However, there is another caveat to the revised mandates. Any restaurant with alcohol sales whether you decide to self-certify or not will have to cut alcohol sales at 11 p.m and customers will have until midnight to finish their drinks. All previous rules such as serving alcohol only with meals and cocktails-to- go remain unchanged.
Continue to educate yourself…
It is important to follow the stipulations established by your local government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ensure you do not get any citations. We have included a quick link on considerations for restaurants and bars to provide other helpful tips and to reduce the spread. It is vital to abide by these guidelines so your operation can continue, and you can keep your liquor license.
It is important to follow these mandates because compliance checks are occurring. There is even an online state complaint form to submit a complaint about a business not complying with COVID-19 mandates.
Since the beginning of July, over a thousand compliance checks have occurred in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Citations and warnings were given throughout the state relating to COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Since July, 44,184 compliance checks have been performed to check for social distancing, masks, and requirements of the liquor code. The mandated guidelines should be followed at all times to avoid losing your liquor license. These guidelines are changing daily, so continue to inform yourself! Adhering by the guidelines protects your liquor license. And protecting your liquor license protects your establishment.
Allyson Lonas, at the time of this post, is a rising second-year at Penn State Dickinson Law. Originally from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Ally attended The Pennsylvania State University for her undergraduate degree and has interests in corporate law, antitrust law, and government law. In her free time, pre-COVID-19, she enjoyed traveling.