To-go margaritas have been a pandemic-era lifeline for Maine restauranteur Susan Stephenson.

Her two eateries – Pepino’s Mexican Restaurant in Bangor and Pepino’s Taco Stand in Brewer – have sold more than 7,000 to-go margaritas since Maine lawmakers adopted what was supposed to be a temporary COVID-19 accommodation for cash-strapped restaurants in 2020.

That $75,000 in to-go income meant that Pepino’s was able to “keep the lights on,” Stephenson said.

“Restaurants have reopened, yes, but we’re still recovering,” Stephenson told lawmakers deciding if the accommodation should be made permanent. “We face a plethora of ongoing challenges such as rising utility and food costs and staffing shortages. Please let to-go cocktails stay.”

On Wednesday, the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee voted 10-0 to make to-go alcohol sales a permanent part of Maine’s hospitality landscape. The bill, L.D. 201, expands existing law by allowing the takeaway sale of wine and beer by the glass, as well as cocktails.

The committee adopted it as an emergency bill so it would go into effect upon adoption – meaning wine and beer could be sold in to-go cups to this year’s summer tourists – rather than three months after the Legislature adjourns in June. An emergency bill requires the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature.


The committee voted in favor of the bill sponsored by Sen. Brad Farrin, R-Somerset, over the objections of public health advocates, including the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which said increasing public access to alcohol at a time when binge-drinking is on the rise was dangerous.

Thomas Brems of CarHop makes a beer delivery in 2020. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

To-go alcohol sales were legalized through an executive order from Gov. Janet Mills in March 2020 as mandated pandemic closures left bars and eateries reeling. Lawmakers extended takeaway sales later that year, and once again in 2022. The current law is set to expire in 2025.

The current law requires that any to-go cocktail must be accompanied by a food order, even if it is just a $3 order of nachos to dress up the $9.50 margarita. The drink must be sold in a sealed container – no straws allowed – that includes the seller’s liquor license number and time of order.

About one out of every 10 Maine liquor license holders – or 243 out of about 2,000 – are now selling to-go cocktails, said Gregg Mineo, the director of the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations. These license holders must get bureau approval to do so.

When COVID-19 was at its worst, 39 states adopted laws allowing temporary to-go cocktail sales to keep their restaurant industries afloat, according to the National Restaurant Association. Thirteen states have extended the expiration date for to-go sales; 18 states have made the changes permanent.

These states include most of Maine’s neighbors and the home states of most Maine visitors: Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York, said Alison Sucy, the chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association.


“Restaurants operate on very thin margins and have a high closure rate,” Sucy told committee members during a public hearing last week. “The provision of allowing alcohol-to-go was literally what saved many of these establishments.”

Public health advocates had asked the committee to consider holding the bill over until the second half of the legislative session to give it more time to collect data on the public health impacts and potential enforcement weaknesses of takeaway cocktails and to-go beer and wine.

Evidence shows that misuse and underage use increase when access to age-restricted products like alcohol increases, said Jamie Cotnoir, the disease prevention director at the Maine CDC. The easier it is for someone to get alcohol, the more likely they are to use it.

Maine’s binge drinking rates are among the highest in the nation, Cotnoir said. COVID-19 stay-at-home orders only made it worse, she said. Initial 2020 data show increases in daily and risky alcohol use, alcohol-related injuries, emergency room visits, deaths and alcohol sales.

In 2021, 6,627 Mainers died from an alcohol-related cause, a 47 percent increase since 2019, Cotnoir said. There were 88 more alcohol-related deaths in 2021 than reported in 2020, and 25 more deaths than in 2016 – a 79 percent increase.

In April 2020, shortly after the pandemic began, the percentage of crashes related to impaired driving in Maine peaked at 50% higher than they had been in April 2019, Cotnoir said. Rates of impaired-driving crashes remained consistently higher in 2021, roughly 25% above what they were before the pandemic.


“In the short timeframe these changes to alcohol policy have been in place, they have proven challenging if not impossible to enforce,” Cotnoir said. There is “limited infrastructure in place to ensure that IDs are being checked and alcohol is not being provided to minors.”

She noted that for much of that time, Mineo’s bureau had just five inspectors to inspect, regulate and enforce state liquor laws, leaving little time for random compliance checks. The department now has seven inspectors. Mills’ proposed biennial budget includes funding for five more.

During a discussion of the bill on Wednesday, committee members said they were sympathetic to the public health concerns, but argued that public health advocates had failed to prove that to-go drinks are to blame for increased alcohol use.

“I am sympathetic to the concerns raised by the CDC and the public health community,” said Rep. Marc Malon, D-Biddeford. “I think they are legitimate. However, they do not rise to the level of causing me to oppose something I think has been a valuable lifeline to businesses.”

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