In the early weeks of the pandemic, Oregon restaurants and bars watched as dozens of states across America rewrote policy or changed laws to allow the sale of cocktails to-go.

Yet even as state-mandated restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 prompted massive layoffs in the food industry, a job sector that employs nearly 10% of the workforce, the state declined to take up the issue.

That changed Monday in Salem. During a special session, the Oregon Senate passed a bill allowing restaurants and bars to sell takeout cocktails and placed a cap on the fees that could be charged by third-party delivery apps, part of a broader round of relief measures designed to help businesses weather what could be a long winter.

The Oregonian/OregonLive first wrote about small businesses asking for cocktails to-go in April, after Oregon’s neighbors in all directions had allowed takeout cocktails in some form. At the time, representatives with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) said that even if they wanted to follow those other states, their hands were tied. That’s because a prohibition on restaurants and bars selling spirits to-go was baked into the Oregon legal code.

Two special sessions went by without lawmakers making the change. According to Ricky Gomez, owner of the Cuban-inspired daiquiri bar Palomar in Southeast Portland, one key to pushing the change through was presenting a unified front. Last month, after Gov. Kate Brown put a short-lived “freeze” on dining outdoors, lobbying groups including the Independent Restaurant Alliance of Oregon and the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association began to press cocktails to-go as a central issue.

“When we first wanted to do this, it was all about navigating state laws, figuring out if this could be done by an executive order, or by the OLCC,” said Ricky Gomez, who worked to reassure legislators that bars would still be checking IDs and could cap or otherwise seal their own drinks in-house. “It was a learning curve, with independent restaurants becoming organized, forming a unified front, then presenting to our state legislators that this needs to change.”

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Local bars found a champion in Rob Nosse, the state representative whose Southeast Portland district includes Palomar. Nosse pushed for legislation that would allow restaurants and bars to “sell and deliver mixed drinks … in sealed containers for off-premises consumption.” As passed, the law requires the OLCC to adopt rules limiting businesses to selling two servings of alcohol “per substantial food item ordered.” Both were key provisions to address concerns from some addiction recovery groups, including Oregon Recovers.

In other places where food is required with alcohol sales, the definition of a “substantial” meal has inspired much debate.

The bill, effective on passage and expires 60 days after Brown’s COVID-19 state of emergency order is no longer in effect, and also limits fees that third-party food platforms such as DoorDash or Grub Hub can charge restaurants. The City of Portland passed a similar rule in July, though restaurants say those companies have not always complied with the cap.

The OLCC plans to hold a special meeting this week to roll out emergency to-go cocktail regulations. Gomez hopes bars get the green light by New Year’s Eve, if not sooner.

In November, when Brown announced a renewed “freeze” on indoor and outdoor dining for Oregon restaurants, Gomez attempted to pivot from his successful rooftop patio back to a takeout-only food model. But despite offering a menu of Cuban favorites, Palomar is best known for its cocktails, particularly daiquiris. In its last week open before shutting down for the winter, the restaurant sold just two food orders to-go.

Despite being in hibernation mode, Palomar is still incurring costs, Gomez said, including rent, utilities, salary for one chef, health insurance for some employees and both liquor liability and unemployment insurance, both of which are going up. He doesn’t expect cocktail sales to be a magic bullet to bring his business back to his pre-COVID-19 days. Instead, he thinks of it as “one more tool” to keep Palomar from going further into debt, and to bring back an employee or two to help make and seal drinks.

“It’s exciting that it’s happening now, but it’s obviously frustrating that it’s taken so long, and a lot of damage has been done,” said Gomez. “I didn’t want to be digging out of a hole, but this allows me to be active, instead of just staying in hibernation mode.”

— Michael Russell, mrussell@oregonian.com, @tdmrussell