After Public Hearing, Worcester License Board Confirms No More Carryout Drinks

After Public Hearing, Worcester License Board Confirms No More Carryout Drinks
Many restaurants, such as Tequila Mockingbird, offered carryout drinks like margaritas during the pandemic with carryout food orders. Photo courtesy of Tequila Mockingbird's Facebook page

SNOW HILL – Local bars and restaurants will not be able to continue offering carryout alcoholic drinks following a decision by the Worcester County Board of License Commissioners.

The board voted unanimously Wednesday not to give establishments the ability to offer drinks to go. Though representatives of three local restaurants advocated for continuing the practice, two well known Ocean City restaurateurs, Shawn Harman of Fish Tales and Greg Shockley of Shenanigans, spoke in opposition.

“I don’t want to become New Orleans,” Harman said. “It kind of rubs against the whole ‘we’re a family town’ thing.”

The three-member Worcester County Board of License Commissioners (BLC) held a public hearing this week regarding Maryland House Bill 12 and Senate Bill 205, which gave local liquor boards the option to adopt regulations allowing the continuation of carryout drink sales by bars and restaurants. Though the to-go sales were permitted during the pandemic, they were allowed through executive order, which expired July 1. The board agreed to hold a hearing to consider continuing the practice this week after receiving input from some local establishments.

Attorney Mark Cropper, representing Guido’s Burritos, submitted a letter in support of allowing businesses to offer to-go drinks.

“…even with seating being restored to pre-pandemic conditions, Guido’s believes that continuing the off-premises sale of alcoholic beverages is essential to its business survival,” Cropper wrote. “In fact, prior to the termination of this opportunity by the board, Guido’s estimates that in excess of 15% of its daily sales were attributable to the carry-out business.”

Neely James of Mother’s Cantina on 28th Street said she too wanted to see the practice continue and that the restaurant’s financial data showed how it had helped boost sales. She said being able to offer carry-out drinks to go with carry-out meals had given customers who weren’t comfortable dining out a chance to enjoy the Mother’s Cantina experience at home.

“It is clear in our numbers we have not recovered from COVID yet,” she said. “We are still working to rebuild.”

BLC member Marty Pusey asked if the restaurant was busy.

“Ocean City’s having a banner year,” she said.

James acknowledged it was busy but said there was a staffing shortage in the resort. As a result, the restaurant has had to increase pay — dishwashers can make $18 an hour — and reduce its hours.

“Our overhead just keeps going up and up,” she said.

She said the restaurant’s alcohol sales were $300,000 less than they were in 2019.

Board members, however, pointed out that the year wasn’t yet over. BLC Chairman William Esham also said the restaurant had received roughly $450,000 in PPP funds.

James said those funds had allowed the restaurant to cover payroll and stay open during the pandemic.

Esham said he was in the hospitality business in Ocean City and his perspective was the resort was recovering.

“I don’t know what your business is doing but ours is bursting at the seams,” he said. “People are going out.”

Caitlin Evans of Dockside in Pocomoke told the board she supported a carry-out drinks allowance. She said it had played a large part in her restaurant’s success during the pandemic.

“There are a number of people that are still choosing to not go out,” she said.

Liz Acker of Oaked 110 in Snow Hill offered similar comments.

“The cost of running a business has increased this year…,” she said. “We’re looking for any way to make up that revenue.”

Harman, however, said there was no enforcement associated with the to-go drinks and that litter from them was all over the resort. He said it also led to increased drinking.

“On the Boardwalk, it complicates a lot of other interactions with people,” he said.

Shockley said he was also opposed to carry-out drinks. He said offering drinks to-go had helped his business last summer during the pandemic but that that was an extreme situation. He added that that abundance of to-go drinks resulted in more drinking on the Boardwalk, to the point that last summer people were just sitting on the wall drinking or walking the boards carrying their own bottle of liquor.

“It just makes things a lot worse than they need to be,” he said.

Shockley added that he worried that if the to-go provision was extended, some restaurants would seek more privileges in the future.

“Ocean City advertises itself as a family town,” he said. “One of the complaints you hear is that it’s become a party town. The backbone of Ocean City’s business is keeping the families coming to town, keeping them comfortable and safe and happy when they come. This year on the Boardwalk is a whole different world. You see families walking back on the Boardwalk again and they’re having fun. The introduction of alcohol just adds something that is not really needed on the Boardwalk.”

Like Harman, he said enforcement was an issue, as the BLC didn’t have an enforcement budget and the police were busy enough already.

A representative of the Worcester County Health Department said she wasn’t in support or opposition of to-go drinks but cited local drinking statistics. She said that if there was more availability of and access to alcohol, drinking related issues could increase.

BLC member Charles Nichols made a motion not to accept the regulations allowing carryout alcohol sales, referencing issues the board needed to consider related to crime, traffic, parking and convenience. BLC member Marty Pusey agreed that the board had to consider a variety of factors in making a decision. She pointed out that no one had discussed the impact to-go sales had on those with a Class A license, which permitted the off sale of package goods.

“This could in a sense be hurting Class A folks,” she said.

Pusey said she was sympathetic to licensees but didn’t want to see Ocean City become like Key West.

“That is not the kind of community we want in Ocean City,” she said.

She added, however, that if COVID numbers increased and restrictions were once again put in place, the board would likely reconsider the issue.

“I feel this law is usurping the process the board goes through when we review each and every request for a license,” Pusey said. “They come before us, we consider what their need is, what community they’re in. This is just bypassing that whole process as well as hurting one entire class of licenses.”

Pusey also brought up enforcement and said it was practically impossible.

“What are we promoting in our community because of the difficulty in enforcement?” she said.

Esham said that there were 334 license holders in Worcester County and three had come Wednesday testify in support of to-go drinks. He said his concern with allowing it was that it would enable public consumption, which was against the law.

“It would put an extra burden on all the police and/or the sheriff’s department in the entire county, not just Ocean City, but it would put an extreme burden on Ocean City which as 70% of our licenses,” he said.

He added that it would also make things harder on lifeguards on the beach and could make it easier for people to drink and drive. Esham also referenced Class A license holders.

“There are approximately 133 that have off-sale privileges that as she says have paid for their license,” Esham said. “If we open up the entire county for carryout, it certainly isn’t going to help them. While we may be helping a few, we might be hurting others.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.