A three-member Worcester County board is less than a week away from deciding the fates of roughly 170 businesses as they pertain to carrying out and delivering alcoholic beverages.
The Worcester County Board of License Commissioners will meet at 1:30 p.m., next Wednesday, to determine whether to adopt state legislation that would extend a covid-era provision allowing businesses with all types of liquor licenses to offer carryout and delivery of alcoholic beverages through June 2023.
Worcester County liquor laws currently allow only certain license types, which are more costly to obtain, to offer off-site sales. Last year, in an effort to curtail effects of the pandemic, those provisions were extended to help bars and restaurants stay afloat among a barrage of restrictions of public gatherings. And they stayed in place until July 1, when the lifting of Maryland’s State of Emergency put the kibosh on most covid-era orders.
Hope is not dead, though, for the scores of county businesses that hold Class B and D alcohol licenses that still want the ability to offer carryout and delivery. Because of a state law that passed during the 2021 Legislative session, the license commissioners can vote next week to extend the provisions until 2023.
For Neely James, the co-owner of two Mother’s Cantina & Taco Shop locations in Ocean City, carryout drinks are still a large revenue booster.
“Profit and loss statements for restaurants are gut wrenching right now,” James said via email. “Overhead, including cost of goods and payroll, is nearly twice as expensive as it was pre-pandemic, and while the crowds are back, it's just not enough to supplement losses. My business is almost 1 million dollars in debt due to loans we incurred during COVID that were used to pay operations costs, and we're still barely paying our overhead while operations costs continue to rise.”
She added that she is not able to save profits for winter payroll and operations yet, despite a need to do so.
“Others are in the same situation,” she said “Small businesses will be pushed further into debt, and restaurants that typically stay open year-round will start closing seasonally, or altogether.”
Carryout sales comprise almost 7 percent of Mother’s profits, James continued, which is enough to help supplement those winter payroll numbers.
“It's the difference between shutting the doors or keeping them open,” she said. “While we rely on tourist dollars, we are a local business that has always done everything in our power to cater to the local community all year. If we shut our doors at one location, at least 36 people will lose their jobs. If the same thing happens up and down Coastal Highway, we'll see year-round residents lose jobs and leave town.”
And while many other business owners agree with James, a nearly equal number of operators are not on board with the extension of the provisions, according to a survey the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce recently issued.
The results, which only polled a small cross-section of business owners, were almost split half and half on the matter. Some, like James, cited increases in their revenues because of the ability to offer carryout and delivery of alcohol, while others claimed it made no difference. One commenter also said that allowing all license holders offer off-site drinks was unfair to the business owners who already hold the proper licenses to do it.
According to county records, more than 250 businesses across the county hold licenses that allow for the sale of alcohol in restaurants and taverns. Of those, about 80 already have some type of allowance for off-site sales, with some paying more money to have that ability.