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Time to fix liquor laws

By TU Editorial Board on April 20, 2016 at 3:12 AM

 Eighty-three years after Prohibition ended, New York alcoholic beverage control laws remains stuck in time, often reflecting 1930s sensibilities.

Lingering Blue Laws are one example. Government used to back up the religious notion of Sunday being a day of worship or rest by requiring businesses to stay closed. Until as late as the 1960s, many localities prohibited large retail stores from opening on Sunday. Over time, most of these arcane, constitutionally questionable restrictions have been lifted.

But in a throwback to those days, it’s still against the law for a bar or restaurant to serve alcoholic beverages before noon on Sundays. So no Bloody Mary or mimosa for you at a late-morning Sunday brunch.

In November, Gov. Andrew Cuomo convened a state Alcohol Beverage Control Working Group to examine New York’s more obscure rules regulating alcohol sales. It suggests two new options for Sunday morning. The better one would align Sundays with other days of the week, and allow sales of alcohol by restaurants and bars starting at 8 a.m. A more cumbersome option would allow businesses to obtain a special permit to serve alcohol on Sunday mornings. The panel offered some other sensible recommendations, like allowing wineries to sell wine in refillable growlers, as craft breweries already do.

The state Legislature should review these proposals and use the opportunity to finally update the state’s behind-the-times ABC laws.

Unfortunately, the working group did not delve into a bigger issue affecting more consumers – whether wine may be sold in grocery stores. New York remains one of 15 states where consumers cannot purchase wine in the same stores where they buy food. In July, Tennessee will lift its ban, and aggressive efforts are under way for a similar change in Mississippi.

Former Gov. David Patterson unsuccessfully pushed the idea in 2011, as a way to raise revenues to help close a state budget deficit. Mr. Cuomo, by contrast, has been more supportive of liquor stores, which don’t want to lose their retail monopoly on wine sales. Distributors also oppose the change, because their lucrative position of middlemen in the industry could be threatened by big supermarket chains buying directly from wineries.

Many other states have found ways to mitigate the impact on the small stores, including a gradual rollout and changes in antiquated laws to let liquor stores be more like boutiques – selling specialty foods like cheeses and other snacks, and craft beers. That’s a niche that has proven profitable elsewhere.

Beyond the obvious convenience and savings this would offer consumers, there would be other benefits, including greater opportunity to promote and sell New York wines.

So while New York should finally get rid of those outdated Blue Laws, it should do more, by coming into the 21st century and joining 35 other states that allow wine sales in grocery stores.