To-go cocktails make it harder to enforce underage drinking laws
By Jenni Bergal
During the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of states have given a boost to struggling restaurants by allowing them to sell cocktails to-go, through takeout, curbside pickup or home delivery. But the expansion of alcohol to-go laws has placed a heavy burden on understaffed alcohol enforcement agencies, which have been hard-pressed to prevent underage drinking.
Before the changes, agents had to make sure servers and bartenders were properly trained, checking photo IDs and not serving intoxicated patrons.
Now, agents also must check whether restaurants and bars are placing cocktails to-go in the proper container with the correct labeling. They have to make sure food is being ordered with alcoholic beverages, as most states require. And they need to monitor whether drivers are checking IDs when they deliver orders, so alcohol isn’t getting into the hands of those under 21.
Sometimes, it does.
Last year in Virginia, for example, agents conducted a series of decoy operations: They ordered alcohol to be delivered to underage buyers, who presented an ID showing their age to be under 21.
Of 52 decoy operations completed, 32 underage buyers ended up with the alcohol, mostly from restaurants but also from grocery or convenience stores. In most cases, the driver didn’t ask for an ID at all. In others, the driver requested an ID but made the sale anyway.
“The noncompliance rate was extremely high,” said Chris Curtis, deputy secretary of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority. He said the typical noncompliance rate for onsite retail sales is closer to 10 percent.
In late April 2020, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control launched the first of nearly a dozen decoy delivery operations, in which underage youths supervised by officers ordered alcohol online or over the phone.
If the driver asked their age, they showed their real ID and answered truthfully, said John Carr, the department’s spokesperson.
Seventy-nine percent of delivery drivers gave alcohol to the underage decoys, according to Carr. During a second operation in early May 2020, there was a 53% violation rate.
Initially, agents handed out educational warnings. Soon after, they issued criminal citations to delivery drivers, who could face fines of $250 to $1,000 for selling alcohol to a minor, Carr said.
Department staffers held virtual meetings with food delivery companies, encouraging training for drivers, and warned liquor licensees they could face a fine or suspension.
Between May 2020 and late February 2022, officers issued 282 citations to delivery drivers, according to Carr. While the percentage of citations dropped considerably over time, there still was a 20% violation rate in February.
A new California law that extends cocktails to-go through 2026 no longer allows deliveries. Customers must pick up the order inside the premises after showing a photo ID. Beer and wine, however, still can be delivered, as was the case before the pandemic.
But the decoy delivery program is here to stay, Carr said. “It’s now part of our normal enforcement.”
While some health care advocates oppose cocktails to-go and home delivery, saying it makes alcohol more easily available and could lead to increased substance use disorder and underage drinking, the changes have gotten bipartisan support in many state legislatures.
Since the start of the pandemic, at least 32 states and the District of Columbia have taken legislative action to allow restaurants and bars to sell cocktails to-go, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, an industry trade group. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have made those changes permanent, and 14 others have extended temporary measures.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania are considering bills to make cocktails to-go permanent.
At least 11 states allow third-party delivery services such as DoorDash and Uber Eats to bring cocktails to people 21 and over at home along with their food order. Some other states let them deliver just beer and wine.
With those changes come more responsibilities, not just for restaurants and delivery companies, but also for enforcement agencies.
“This is an evolving situation,” said Brandy Nannini, a senior vice president at Responsibility.org, a Virginia-based nonprofit funded by distillers that aims to eliminate underage drinking and impaired driving. “It’s important, as we see these new practices allowed, that people get it right. Maybe we’re not there yet. But we’re trying to get there.”
The National Liquor Law Enforcement Association, which represents agencies across the U.S., recommends that they conduct quarterly, random compliance checks. It also wants servers, bartenders and delivery drivers trained in both state and local alcohol policies and how to properly check IDs.
And the group wants more funding for alcohol law enforcement agencies, many of which already are overburdened. A survey of 18 states published by the group in December 2020 found an average of one agent for every 207 alcohol outlets.
Training for delivery drivers
Cocktails to-go legal requirements and policies vary from state to state and sometimes from county to county. Typically, they require food to be ordered along with the mixed drink, which needs to be in a tamper-proof container. Many cap the number of cocktails per meal.
But unlike patrons ordering drinks in person at brick-and-mortar businesses, home delivery often is ordered online. Officials say that’s why it’s important for restaurants and delivery services to know who is placing the order and receiving it.
“The main objective is to make sure alcohol does not get into the hands of minors or those who are visibly intoxicated, which could cause harm, such as DUIs and domestic violence,” said Carrie Christofes, executive director of the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association.
In Texas, the alcoholic beverage commission has created an online course for third-party delivery drivers who bring alcoholic beverages to consumers.
The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority cited its decoy operations in an October report, which concluded that delivery providers need to be held responsible for verifying ID and age when delivering alcohol.
The report recommended regular compliance checks and training for servers and delivery drivers as well as measures included in a bill Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed into law last month. The law extends cocktails to-go until July 2024 and requires third-party delivery companies to be licensed. Drivers also must go through state-approved education about delivering alcoholic beverages, and the state agency must collect data about how the program is working.
Curtis of the Virginia agency said delivery companies will have to pay a license fee that would cover any additional costs incurred by his agency. They also will be subject to a fine if their drivers illegally deliver alcohol to people underage.
Some delivery companies say they are taking these issues seriously.
DoorDash offers guidance for drivers and a course on responsible alcohol deliveries, and, if the state requires its own, they must complete that, company spokesperson Campbell Millum said in an email. Customers who order alcohol must first upload an image of a government-issued ID, which delivery drivers then have to verify before they hand over alcohol. They also need to determine whether someone appears intoxicated.
Uber Eats also gives drivers information about how to deliver alcohol properly, an Uber spokesperson said in an email. Customers who order from the site must show the driver a valid ID. Drivers are alerted when the order includes alcohol and use technology that scans the ID. If the customer is underage, intoxicated or not at home, the app routes the driver back to the merchant and the person is paid, using the usual fare structure.
But it’s not just deliveries that need to be monitored, officials say.
In Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., the alcohol beverage agency conducted a curbside pickup “mystery shopper” initiative in the fall of 2020. Participants were 21 or older, but looked much younger, said Kathie Durbin, director of Montgomery County Alcohol Beverage Services.
The county found that 55% of restaurants did not check curbside mystery shoppers’ IDs and that only 15% told them that an ID would be needed when they picked up an order.
“People were not checking properly. It gave us an opportunity to educate them more,” Durbin said, noting that the county then launched a series of campaigns to alert businesses about what they need to do.
Nannini, of Responsibility.org, said changes in alcohol to-go laws have been a learning experience for businesses and government agencies.
“There were some bumps in the road at the beginning of the pandemic. Today, compliance is much better,” she said. “But the flip side of this is that fake IDs are getting more and more sophisticated. You can buy a really good one online now.”
Jenni Bergal is a veteran journalist who covers transportation, infrastructure, and cybersecurity for Stateline, where this story originally appeared. It is republished under a Creative Commons license. Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service that is an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.