Walz signs bill to allow beer and wine takeout sales

A person hands someone a box while standing outside a restaurant.
Broders' Pasta Bar general manager Caitlin Varner, center, hands a takeout order to a customer in Minneapolis on March 17, 2020, as waiter Johann Hauser paints the front window to advertise that the store will be open for takeout. Bars, restaurants and other venues that serve dine-in guests are temporarily closing in Minnesota to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News file

Updated: 7:50 p.m. April 17 | Posted: 3:57 p.m. April 16

Bars and restaurants in Minnesota that are limited to serving takeout food orders will soon get a boost. Gov. Tim Walz on Friday signed a bill that allows bars and restaurants to temporarily sell wine and beer with takeout food orders, a day after the Senate passed it by wide margins.

Bars and restaurants were forced to close their doors last month under the stay-at-home order issued by Walz. Many restaurants still prepare food, but only on a carry-out basis.

Under the new measure that takes effect this Saturday, customers can purchase one bottle of wine or up to a six-pack of beer, cider or hard seltzer with their food. Other alcoholic beverages are not included. City officials will be able to decide whether to allow local participation.

“This is a small but important step to provide relief for the local restaurants that are struggling to keep their lights on during this pandemic,” said the DFL governor. “This will allow Minnesotans to continue to support their favorite local businesses. The restaurant industry is finding creative ways to keep Minnesotans fed and happy during this challenging time, and we’re going to help them out.”

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The Senate on Thursday voted 65-2 to pass the beer and wine takeout bill. The House also passed the bill on Friday on a 129 to 1 vote.

Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, said her bill allows those businesses to sell the wine and beer they have in their inventory.

“This is something that we can do right now. These businesses are hurting. They need to be able to get cash in the door to be able to feed their families,” she said, noting the legislation was the result of extensive negotiations with several business and beverage industry groups.

Small business owners are experiencing real economic pain, said Republican Sen. Paul Anderson of Plymouth.

“To say their lives have been disrupted is an understatement. The stress for them is bigger than any virus. This is their livelihood,” Anderson said.

Republican Rep. Tony Jurgens, of Cottage Grove, said the bill is a small gesture to help bars and restaurants.

“This isn’t going to be a make or break for them. It will help,” Jurgens said. “It will help them a little bit with their cash floor. It will help them be able sell the product they’ve already paid for, product that’s been gathering dust for the last several weeks.”

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, argued the bill picks winners and losers. He said small bars that primarily sell liquor should get a similar break and be able to sell pizzas and other food items for carry out.

“I, for the life of me, have no idea why anybody would buy a $40 bottle of wine for the restaurant in their takeout when they can get it for 10 bucks at the liquor store,” Tomassoni said. “So, I don’t think the bill is going to work anyway.”

Many Republican senators made it clear that they want to see bigger things happening soon to allow businesses of all kinds to reopen.

“We’re not ready to open stadiums, but we are ready to allow people to buy a little beer when they go for their takeout. We’re ready for people to play golf on unattended golf courses. We’re ready for car washes to open that are automated,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, adding that people are discouraged and need a glimmer of hope.

Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, said businesses across the state are hurting and should be able to reopen safely.

“We need to open Minnesota. Governor, we need to do this now,” Jasinski said.

It was part of a theme for the day, which started with several business owners and advocates pleading to the Senate Taxes Committee for state help, including a delay to the upcoming May 15 property tax payment deadline.

The panel has a draft proposal that would defer the taxes the state collects until July and leave it to counties to decide on the rest. About a quarter of what commercial property owners pay goes directly to the state. Christie Ransom of the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce said every bit helps.

“I can say with certainty that there are many businesses across the state that may be using the last funds that they have to pay those taxes,” she said. “They may not have those funds at all. This could mean the difference between staying afloat and waiting for federal funding and closing forever for many of these businesses.”

Walz has said he’d consider a payment delay. Such a move could push off more than $200 million in payments for months.

Troy Reding, an owner of multiple Twin Cities restaurants, told the Senate committee that the year started off so promising that he opened a sweet shop in Maple Grove with spare kitchen space at one restaurant. Then the bottom fell out almost overnight.

“At the end of February all four stores were ahead of last year’s sales by double digits and all were profitable for the first time. It looked like we were going to have a great year and be able to look for the next location,” Reding said. “Now everything has changed.”

He’s down to takeout only on limited hours, laid off 133 of 159 employees and saw his revenue drop to 25 percent of normal.

During the debate over the takeout drinks bill, Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights pushed back. Klein, an emergency room physician at HCMC, urged his Senate colleagues to be cautious with their suggestions of more economic activity. He said that testing for the coronavirus is still inadequate and warned the health care system could be quickly overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

“That is when young doctors, younger than me, start making decisions about who gets a ventilator and who must stay on the floor and die,” he said. “Those are extremely real decisions, and they will be made if we don’t do this right.”