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Alaska alcohol regulators move to allow to-go sales of beer and wine from restaurants

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Alaska’s Alcohol Control Board voted on two measures Wednesday that, if approved by the governor, would relax alcohol laws during the coronavirus pandemic to ease the financial pain it is inflicting on restaurants.

The board unanimously approved to-go sales of factory-sealed beer and wine from any bar or restaurant currently licensed to sell such products on premises, with or without food.

It also unanimously voted to allow curbside pickup of products from liquor stores and other manufacturers, such as breweries.

The board was not sure if it actually has the legal authority to change the laws, so the votes act as advice to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, requesting that he suspend laws barring such commerce.

Discussion of delivery of alcohol, whether by a restaurant employee or a third-party service, did not result in a vote. Board member Charlie Cross was absent from the meeting.

“We’ve beat it to death. I’m going to call for the question and we’re going to beg for forgiveness later,” board chair Glenn Brady said before calling up the motion regarding curbside sales of liquor.

None of the changes will go into effect unless Dunleavy gives his approval. Sarah Oates, president of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, said she doesn’t know when that will be, but hopes it’s soon.

Oates said she has been inundated with calls from the industry and the public asking for relief. This, she said, won’t substantially change the financial situation for bars and restaurants that are closed to on-premises consumers, but maybe it helps some break even, or prevent more job losses.

Oates said 44 other states have relaxed alcohol laws to help the industry during the pandemic.

Her members are “frankly furious that our state has neglected to take any action whatsoever to help the industry in this regard," she said. "We’re one of six, and it’s insulting to many Alaskans.”

Oates said about a week ago she met with former Gov. Sean Parnell and former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who lead Dunleavy’s new Economic Stabilization Team.

“I will likely reach out again to the governor’s office, maybe more directly to his team, about this concept and see where we go," Oates said after the board meeting.

The board discussed the matter for nearly an hour, with Brady and members Dana Walukiewicz and Rex Leath voicing hesitation about voting in favor of any changes during the meeting. They favored postponing a decision for a week to get input from Dunleavy.

They were eventually swayed by Oates, board member Sara Erickson and industry attorney Jessica Brown, who pushed for a vote.

“It is my intent to grant this for the industry now,” Erickson said. “I don’t think we need to put it off a week. The crisis is now.”

Oates said CHARR did a poll of restaurants on March 23, finding 7% said they were closing permanently. On Wednesday, that number doubled.

“We are grasping at straws right now to try to just keep as much of our industry still in business as possible,” she said.

Brown argued that if no relief comes for the struggling industry, hundreds to thousands of jobs could be lost.

Brown said a lawsuit challenging any regulation changes would take months or years to play out, well after any changes have already been reversed. There is minimal legal risk, she said, and the board must act now.

“I would go so far as to say it’s the board’s moral obligation to do so,” she said.

Legality “is a question for down the road," Brown said.

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