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What’s Next: End Prohibition Era Laws in Virginia

What’s Next with Nicole is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow. 

Antiquated Prohibition-era laws are still alive and well in Virginia.

These regulations have become a burden on restaurants and entertainment-oriented businesses operating in the Commonwealth. For Arlington and Northern Virginia at large, this means lost business opportunities to competitors in Washington, D.C. that don’t have to abide by such outdated regulations.

Democrats this past session passed a law that allows restaurants to merely advertise happy hour but opposed numerous other reforms. For example, the Virginia Alcoholic and Beverage Commission, or ABC, requires that 45% of total gross sales at restaurant establishments be comprised of food and nonalcoholic beverages while alcohol purchases should not exceed more than 55% of sales.

Senate Minority Leader, Dick Saslaw, has said,  “If you can’t meet that ratio, you ain’t running a restaurant, you are flat running a bar. If you want saloons in Virginia, say so.”

So, here I am, saying so. We would like not only saloons, but restaurant wedding venues, music and dance venues, cigar lounges, cocktail bars, bottomless mimosas, and the like. A few examples of overburdensome regulations in Virginia that I hope Democrats will support overturning or reforming include:

Food to Alcohol Ratio

Virginia ABC’s 45/55% ratio rule should be overturned. The whole concept of having such a ratio to avoid drunkenness in our community is laughable. If you want to have a drink at a restaurant, you can have a drink. We are no longer in Prohibition. Bartenders are required to cut patrons off if they’ve had too much, but none are going to tell customers “sorry we’ve hit our food to drink ratio, so we’re going to have to stop serving you.”

What this really does is stifle certain business models like music venues (think: U Street Music Hall or 9:30 Club), cocktail bars (think: The Gibson or Left Door), art museums (think: Artechouse), and more. While I think we should wash the ratio altogether, Democrats have actually opposed even a reduction of the ratio, which seems irrational.

Open Bars for Events in Restaurants

Restaurants are also banned from allowing open bars for private parties. Want to host a corporate or conference event and provide an open bar? Head to D.C. Want to have your wedding reception at a local restaurant? Tough luck.

Wonder why Arlington’s New Year’s Eve celebrations are barely worth the cost, and make a large market of customers cross the river every December 31st for unlimited drink passes? Taking away this regulation would allow for a potentially large revenue generator and perhaps even help reduce the number of ARLnow articles we see about restaurant closings. This is silly, let’s scrap it.

Drink Specials

Drink specials such as bottomless or “2 for 1” deals are banned in Virginia. These regulations are essentially obsolete because they do allow for sort of bottomless where you pay a fixed price for your meal and as little as a penny for each drink. This rule has no tangible benefits and unnecessarily hinders restaurants from marketing competitively.

These regulations seem like one of those things that we will look back on one day and think to ourselves about how silly things used to be. During the next legislative session, I encourage our delegation to think about these issues in a new light and finally overturn these antiquated laws 86 years after Prohibition ended.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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