To-go cocktails would have to travel in the trunk under new bills

By: - January 19, 2023 5:23 pm

Mixed drinks for takeout became permissible during the pandemic, but looser rules about them has threatened federal funding. (Photo by Getty Images)

Margaritas and other mixed, alcohol-containing drinks that were first allowed as to-go orders from restaurants and bars in the early throes of the coronavirus pandemic in Iowa might be relegated to vehicle trunks.

Currently, those drinks are not considered open containers of alcohol and can be transported in vehicles within reach of drivers. Two bills in the Iowa House and Senate would reverse that and make drivers liable for open containers if police found even a sealed to-go cocktail within reach.

The current law was meant to boost the revenue of businesses that suffered mightily from the pandemic, when in-person dining largely ceased and to-go orders and deliveries became the norm. Iowa’s was the first state legislature to codify such a provision after numerous state governors enacted them on a temporary basis.

The problem is that the federal government is threatening to withhold about $14 million of annual funding for roads and bridges because of that provision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration imposes a “transfer penalty” for states that don’t have compliant Open Container Laws and would redirect 2.5% of Iowa’s funding to be used for anti-drunken-driving initiatives.

“We are in favor just from the highway funding aspect, and also that the drink is not in the front seat or in the back seat in the car where it’s reachable,” Susan Fenton, the legislative liaison for the Iowa Department of Transportation, said Thursday.

Fenton’s remarks were part of a Senate State Government subcommittee hearing on Senate Study Bill 1032, which the subcommittee advanced. A House committee canceled its Thursday hearing on the identical House Study Bill 29.

“I’m happy to move it out today, as is, with the understanding that there’s more conversation here and we’ll discuss it further,” said Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, a special agent of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation who led the Senate hearing.

Dawson wondered aloud why state requirements for sealing the to-go containers wasn’t sufficient for federal regulators but said he didn’t have a problem with moving the drinks to trunks for transport.

The state’s initial version of the cocktail bill in 2020 resulted in strict sealing methods — shrink wrap or screw-top lids — and a prohibition of using disposable cups made of paper, Styrofoam or plastic. Lawmakers loosened restrictions on the containers in 2021 to include lids with holes for straws or for drinking straight from the container, which federal officials said was unacceptable, according to an Alcoholic Beverages Division memo.

The currently proposed legislation would allow restaurants and bars more leeway with the to-go containers they use without flouting Open Container requirements.

Eric Goranson, a lobbyist for the Iowa Restaurant Association and the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association, said the changes are overly reactive and that the original 2020 law worked well.

“The (bill’s) solution is to have the pendulum swing all the way over here, when we could probably have a different solution that makes everyone either equally happy or equally unhappy,” Goranson said. “So we’re actually we’re opposed to the bill in its current form. But we would be very happy to fix this in a way that makes everything work. We don’t think this is it.”

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.