By Shereen Siewert
Wausau officials on Monday will consider formally opposing proposed legislation that would allow restaurants and taverns to sell single-serve cocktails in sealed packaging, a bill that is being lauded by restaurant and tavern owners struggling with a downturn in business.
If passed, the bill would apply to taverns and restaurants with a license to sell wine and spirits on site, allowing them to sell mixed drinks in sealed containers. Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, and Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, are sponsors of the bill. So far, 33 states have allowed to-go alcohol sales in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Supporters say the move is necessary to help struggling business owners at a crucial time. According to a November survey from the National Restaurant Association, nearly half of Wisconsin restaurant operators said they are considering closing temporarily, while dozens have shut their doors permanently in the wake of COVID-19. The Wisconsin Restaurant Association, one of the largest trade associations in the state with more than 7,000 member locations, supports the bill. The Tavern League of Wisconsin also supports the bill.
But Wausau’s Public Health and Safety Committee on Monday will vote on a resolution to oppose the bill, citing concerns over state legislation that “encourages and increases the potential opportunities alcohol consumption by operators of motor vehicles or by underage individuals.”
The city “believes it is critical to reduce the risk of alcohol consumption and the operation of vehicles by operators under the influence of alcohol beverages, and the ability of alcohol to be obtained by those individuals under the age of 21,” according to the language of the resolution.
Wausau Public Health and Safety Committee Chair Lisa Rasmussen said the measure undermines local control of alcohol licensing, which has been the responsibility of municipalities for decades.
“Communities should be working with their license holders and business communities on adjustments to assist during the pandemic so they can manage it without opening up the option statewide for all, including areas where there may have been problems in the past,” Rasmussen said.
Wausau has already passed a process that allows Class B licensed holders to sell closed containers for curbside pickup and one that will allow grocers to allow curbside pickup of alcohol, but only with an accompanying food purchase.
As of December, 2020 more than 17 percent of restaurants in the United States have permanently closed and the unemployment rate in the hospitality industry has reached 40 percent, Collin Driscoll, policy advisor for Sen. Felzkowski, said.
In Wausau, many bars and restaurants have sharply cut back on their hours and days of operation, including Wausau on the Water, which restricted operations to a Friday to Sunday schedule. Both Limerick’s and Malarkey’s in downtown Wausau have also changed their operating hours in response to reduced traffic.
In the metro area, The Palms Supper Club temporarily eliminated lunch service and now opens at 3 p.m. daily. Manager Anna Anderson said the restaurant would sell cocktail kits if the legislation passes.
“In my opinion any viable new income stream for a restaurant with what’s going on today needs to be pursued,” Anderson said.
Most local restaurant owners say they’ve suffered a significant downturn in their revenue, putting jobs at risk. The bill aims to give those business owners added revenue at a time they are desperately in need.
“This important change will greatly benefit small independent restaurant, tavern and supper club owners and provide them another tool to survive and make it until the summer,” the note seeking co-sponsors said.
Lisa Rasmussen, Dawn Herbst, Becky McElhaney, Pat Peckham and Jim Wadinski are members of the Public Health and Safety Committee and will take up the issue during a meeting at 5:15 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau.
Find the full packet, which includes information on how to join the meeting remotely, at this link.