SALEM — Aiding financially crippled businesses and the impact of alcoholism on public health were the center of debate Tuesday, July 21, at a meeting to consider extending off-site alcohol sales rules put in place early in the COVID-19 crisis.
More than two dozen representatives of businesses selling alcohol, addiction recovery groups, government agencies and others took part in the teleconference of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission Advisory Committee.
The meeting was the first step toward extending a set of emergency measures put in place in March and April to allow for off-site alcohol sales and delivery to aid breweries, wineries, distilleries, grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses impacted by restrictions on on-site operations and sales because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tony Roberts, spokesman for the Oregon Brewers Guild, said the limits on business had hammered the members of his craft brewery organization.
"A third of all beer sold is draft," Roberts said. With the state restrictions on bars and restaurants, "that evaporated."
Brad Irwin, CEO of the Oregon Distillers Guild, said his members estimate sales are down 30 percent since the pandemic. The changes in rules had limited the exposure of the virus in sales.
"Curbside and home delivery is the way in the pandemic to keep me and my staff safe," he said.
Delivery options and earlier alcohol sales hours are what the public wants, said Amanda Dalton, legislative director for the Northwest Grocery Association.
"This has been incredibly popular with the public, especially our senior customers," she said.
Extending the temporary rules is opposed by some public health officials and addiction recovery advocates.
Scott Winkels, a public health advisor for the Oregon League of Cities, said OLCC needed to look hard at the negative impacts of the rules, particularly the delivery of distilled spirits.
"People can get high octane beverages direct to their doors," he said.
Mike Marshall, director of Oregon Recovers, a statewide group advocating for improved alcohol and drug addiction services, said Tuesday's effort was asking the wrong questions.
"This whole conversation is putting the cart before the horse," Marshall said. "This is the complete opposite of what public health officials say is necessary. The state should be restricting alcohol sales. This just seems completely out of touch with the world around us."
Marshall said alcohol-related public health costs cost the state $5.9 billion per biennium, Oregon's two-year budget cycle. He criticized the OLCC for not giving state public health officials a larger role in determining the sales policies.
Marshall's comment drew a strong rebuke from OLCC Executive Director Steve Marks.
"That's dead wrong," he said.
Marks said the agency has been following Gov. Kate Brown's directives and noted that it had made over 2,200 inspections of alcohol-serving businesses in the past few weeks. Businesses that didn't enforce social distancing and face covering rules were subject to fines and additional punitive action.
"We're the closest thing to the mask police there is," he said.
Commissioner Matt Maletis said the OLCC was in a balancing act. "The agency is working hard trying to navigate everybody's interest," he said. "We have to keep on keeping on."
The rules will now go through a public hearing and comment period in August. The full Oregon Liquor Control Commission will then vote on the issue, most likely at its Sept. 11 meeting.