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Md. liquor bills hit roadblocks in the House

One of the bills rejected by a Maryland House committee would have allowed beer and wine sales in grocery stores in areas that are regarded as food deserts. (AP Photo/John Gress)

One of the bills rejected by a Maryland House committee would have allowed beer and wine sales in grocery stores in areas that are regarded as food deserts. (AP Photo/John Gress)

Two liquor bills that would expand the sale of alcohol in Maryland were struck down by a House of Delegates subcommittee on Friday.

The first of the two bills, both of which were sponsored by Del. Lily Qi, D-Montgomery, would have allowed grocery stores to sell beer and wine if the establishment was providing fresh food and was in a food desert, as a way to incentivize grocers to move into those areas.

At the bill’s February hearing, public health experts and some members of the House Economic Matters Committee questioned the premise that bringing an “additional vice,” in the words of Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, into communities struggling with food insecurity would be beneficial.

Known as the Healthy Food Accountability Act of 2021, the bill was also cross-filed in the Senate by Sen. Cory McCray, D-Baltimore. It was heard by the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Friday.

Prior to voting, members of the Alcoholic Beverages Subcommittee criticized the bill for the negative effects that it could have on locally owned liquor stores.

“Most of our package stores are family-owned,” said Del. Steven Arentz, R-Caroline, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s. “We have three major grocery stores in Queen Anne’s County, and each one of them has a liquor store within 100 yards of them … this will put them out of business.”

In light of the unfavorable vote, Qi told The Daily Record she plans to withdraw the bill in order to continue working towards legislation for the 2022 session that would bring grocers into food insecure areas. Addressing food insecurity, she emphasized, rather than allowing grocery stores to sell alcohol, was her main goal with this bill.

“I didn’t even want to frame it as an alcohol bill so much as an economic tool to attract grocery stores,” she said.

Still, she stands by the bill, arguing it would not have hurt family-owned liquor stores; in Montgomery County, she says, there are six grocery stores that currently sell alcohol and each has a liquor store within walking distance that continues to operate despite the competition.

“This bill is so limited and measured. (To qualify), you have to have certain square footage, be in certain ZIP codes,” she said. “It was never going to be sweeping changes.”

The second bill would have allowed liquor stores to continue delivering alcohol to customers even after the pandemic ends; it was one of three bills extending a March 2020 executive order signed by Gov. Larry Hogan that allowed the delivery of alcoholic products in hopes of keeping the alcohol and liquor industries afloat during the pandemic.

All three were presented as means to help those industries recover from the economic devastation of COVID-19 over the coming years, as well as to provide a convenience that consumers have come to expect throughout the pandemic.

While liquor stores supported the bill, regulators disliked that it would seemingly allow retailers to sell alcohol over county lines into jurisdictions in which they are not licensed.

Qi said that because she is new to the realm of alcohol legislation, she did not realize how much pushback the bill would get for failing to include clarification that alcohol couldn’t be delivered over county lines.

Another bill based on Hogan’s executive order, allowing restaurants to sell alcohol for take-out or delivery, did pass through the subcommittee. The subcommittee adopted two amendments for this bill, sponsored by Del. Courtney Watson, D-Howard.

The first sunsets the legislation in 2023 and allows jurisdictions to set limits on how much alcohol restaurants can sell to-go.

The second amendment to the bill requires a driver delivering alcohol to be at least 21 years old and to have undergone alcohol awareness training. Previously, the bill required the driver, who must also be an employee of the restaurant, to be 18.

Another bill that would allow alcohol manufacturers, including breweries and distilleries, to sell alcohol for takeout and delivery will be held for a future subcommittee meeting.

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