Liquor stores prepare for battle as New York revisits to-go drinks from the early pandemic days.

ALBANY, N.Y. — Amid the gloom and economic devastation that the pandemic first brought to New York, state officials introduced a crowd-pleasing salve: the temporary legalization of to-go alcoholic drinks.

The move in March 2020 was seen as a lifeline to a restaurant industry that had been decimated by the virus, and a socially pointed diversion for New Yorkers eager to reclaim a wisp — even in the form of a takeout margarita — of their prepandemic lives.

So when state lawmakers attempted to permanently legalize to-go cocktails last spring, the effort seemed to many like a shoo-in.

And yet, by the time lawmakers adjourned in June, the measure was dead, the apparent victim to a powerful and ubiquitous force in Albany: the relatively discreet but forceful opposition from lobbyists for an aggrieved liquor store industry.

The defeat of the proposal last June is a quintessential story about the indelible impact that well-organized lobbying forces have on even the most unassuming policy proposals in Albany.

It set off a contentious clash between liquor stores and the restaurant industry over who should be allowed to put alcohol in New Yorkers’ hands outside of their premises. In a flurry of activity, their lobbyists took aim at the State Capitol, trade groups started public relations campaigns, and even the union representing state police waded into the debate.

But the time-tested lobbying efforts of the liquor store industry, which appeared to mobilize more swiftly to quell momentum of the legislation, caught the restaurant industry flat-footed. Behind the scenes, the liquor store industry directed tens of thousands of dollars in political donations to state lawmakers, while individual store owners mounted a campaign to pressure their elected officials.

Their primary concern, of course, was money: They made their case that allowing bars and restaurants to sell booze to-go would upend their businesses. But they imbued that contention with public health concerns, arguing that takeout drinks could lead to underage drinking and drunken driving, as well as drinking in public — concerns echoed by some lawmakers.

The battle is set for a second round during the current legislative session, as Gov. Kathy Hochul announced in her State of the State address that she intended to legalize the sale of to-go drinks for bars and restaurants, making permanent a program that ended in June.

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