Gov. DeSantis signs bill making to-go alcohol permanent

Appearing at a Volusia County eatery, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Thursday a bill that makes permanent a popular COVID-19 emergency order allowing restaurants to sell alcoholic drinks with take-home meals.

"It's probably the most difficult year that the restaurant industry has had to face, certainly in recent times," DeSantis said during a news conference at Houligan’s in Ormond Beach. "And yet, you look at Florida, not that it was a piece of cake, but now this industry is really thriving in Florida. We have people that will move to Florida and start new restaurants because they know they have an environment that they can do very well."

Houligan’s owner Tim Curtis said the executive order that DeSantis issued more than a year ago kept sales going when indoor seating was banned due to COVID-19.

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"We adopted what we call the Chick-fil-A model within days," Curtis said. "We had double drive-up lanes. We had eight servers working out of a small to-go room. Our Friday nights are the busiest night in the restaurant industry, where we don't have a seat and the restaurant is selling alcohol like crazy from 4 o'clock to 9 o'clock, our busiest hours. And I'm going to tell you this, we didn't miss a beat. Friday nights 4 o'clock to 9 o'clock without a single person in our restaurant. We were still doing the same level of sales."

The to-go option, which will officially become law July 1, will be available to restaurants that have special alcoholic-beverage licenses and derive at least 51 percent of revenue from food and non-alcoholic sales. For restaurants with regular "quota" licenses, food and non-alcoholic drinks would have to account for 60 percent of the sales.

To-go drinks must be placed in secured containers and placed in locked compartments, vehicle trunks or in areas behind the last upright seats in vehicles. Restaurants will be prohibited from including alcoholic drinks in orders being delivered by people under age 21.

The law requires cutting off the sale of to-go drinks --- mixed or in bottles --- when restaurants’ scheduled food service ends for the day or at midnight, whichever occurs first.

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Officials from the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association have repeatedly called the legislation a "lifeline" for restaurants.

Julie Brown, secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said the to-go option has helped restaurants that had to adapt to numerous challenges over the past year.

"They've been resourceful, and they've been persistent," Brown said. "So many of them have found new opportunities, options, methods of sharing their offerings and added conveniences with consumers."

While restaurants were closed to indoor dining early in the pandemic, DeSantis has touted efforts for months to lift restrictions on businesses and residents.

The bill signing came a day after DeSantis said on Fox News that Floridians who violated local government social-distancing orders during the pandemic will get pardons when the state clemency board meets June 16. 

DeSantis said pardons will be issued for a Plantation gym owner fined three times for refusing to follow Broward County’s mask mandate last summer and "any Floridian who may have outstanding infractions for things like masks and social distancing."