As of yesterday, June 8, 2020, Massachusetts restaurants have begun to reopen from the COVID-19 quarantine for outdoor, on-premise dining; a long awaited moment for restaurant owners and workers throughout the Commonwealth. The reopening brings questions for restaurants – particularly those holding on-premise liquor licenses – about operating procedure in a post-lockdown world. For example, may a restaurant that has a liquor license, but that does not normally offer outdoor seating, sell alcoholic beverages as part of its outdoor service? Must the restaurant gain approval of its local licensing authority (LLA) to do so? Must it gain approval of the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission (ABCC) to do so? These questions and more are answered below.
As a threshold matter, a Massachusetts restaurant with an on-premise liquor license is only permitted to sell alcoholic beverages on its licensed premise, both pre-COVID-19 and now (there are certain exceptions of course, which we will set aside for this advisory). As part of the licensing process for an on-premise liquor license, restauranteurs must carefully describe to their LLA the dimensions of the premises that the license will cover. If the licensee later decides to expand or otherwise amend the licensed premises (such as to include an outdoor patio), it must first seek approval from the LLA. Once approved, the LLA will send the application to the ABCC for its independent approval. So, in the old days (of three months ago), a restauranteur whose liquor license did not include an outdoor area would not have been permitted to sell alcoholic beverages in that area until it first received approval from its LLA and then from the ABCC. Obtaining those approvals could take ample time and planning.
The rules are now relaxed, temporarily, for the benefit of licensees. Pursuant to Governor Baker’s orders, LLAs have been given the authority to expand on-premise licensed premises for outdoor seating via an expedited process. On application from the licensee, the LLA may alter the description of the licensed premises to expand for outdoor seating that the LLA deems “reasonable and proper.” In addition, the LLA need not provide advanced notice to abutters or hold a public hearing before issuing approval. The LLAs must, however, continue to follow the ABCC’s 2015 guidelines for extending licensed premises to patio and outdoor areas.
Also benefitting licensees is that ABCC approval is not required on these expedited applications. Once the LLA approves, the amended license is issued without further ado. This should further decrease administrative delays before restaurants may begin serving alcoholic beverages as part of outside service.
Under these relaxed rules (which are only effective through November 1, 2020, unless extended further) how can restaurants maximize their chances of gaining approval with their LLA for their outside seating proposals?
If you have any questions about maximizing your restaurant’s chances of obtaining LLA approval of your restaurant’s liquor license premises expansion, please feel free to contact Anthony Bova, Michael Rossi, or Mary ‘Beth’ O’Neal.