COVID-19 Authoritarianism Takes on Dining (Again)

COVID-19 Authoritarianism Takes on Dining (Again)

This post is authored by Mitch Nemeth

The rapid onset of COVID-19 has prompted an onslaught of government edicts, some backed by the scientific consensus while others are entirely obscure, arbitrary, and nonsensical. These edicts have included: the mandatory wearing of face masks, the closure of certain industries, the closure of specific aisles of the local grocery store, and now the government’s definition of a restaurant meal.

Prior to COVID-19, many Americans couldn’t even identify their local politicians, according to StudyFinds, but today these obscure figures are having an outsized impact on our daily lives. Today, these local elected officials are experimenting with their overly broad powers granted to them by state constitutions and national emergency law.

Pennsylvania’s response to COVID-19 has been heavily criticized by some, including Allen C. Guelzo in the Wall Street Journal. Recently, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board updated their COVID guidelines to define the acceptable purchase of alcohol at a restaurant or bar. The updated guidelines state the following: 

  • “Sales of alcohol for on-premises consumption are only permissible as part of a larger transaction that includes a meal purchase. The term ‘meal’ is defined in section 406 of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code as ‘food prepared on the premises, sufficient to constitute breakfast, lunch or dinner.’ The definition expressly states that a snack, such as pretzels, popcorn, chips, or similar food, does not meet the definition of a meal.”
  • “A customer who wishes to consume alcohol on-premises must also purchase a meal; a group of customers who wish to consume alcohol on premises may do so as long as a meal is part of the purchase made by the group.”
  • “Additional drinks may be purchased while the customer is consuming the meal, but no further drinks may be purchased after the meal is finished.”

Similarly, the New York State Liquor Authority has intervened into the matters of bars and restaurants. The State Liquor Authority updated its guidance to require diners to order “substantial food” when purchasing an alcoholic beverage. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo chimed in by saying that chicken wings are not substantial food for bars to sell with alcohol. Cuomo, however, mentions that soups and sandwiches are the “lowest level” of substantive food that diners can order along with alcohol. Cuomo’s comments come after news coverage of a New York phenomenon, “Cuomo Chips.”

According to Fox News, two owners of an Irish pub in Saratoga Springs, New York came up with “Cuomo chips” to follow the state’s guidance, which required the purchase of food to be sold with every alcohol order. “Cuomo chips” were literally just a “standard bag of potato chips renamed” after the Governor of New York. This popular food item served as a loophole to this ridiculous government restriction on the purchase of alcohol in a restaurant or bar. The idea of government interfering into the consumption habits of Americans was once scoffed at by progressives, namely after Justice Antonin Scalia’s famous dissent in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. Justice Scalia questioned whether or not the federal government had the authority to mandate the consumption of broccoli for possible “cancer-fighting” chemicals “which only that food contains.” 

Prior to COVID-19, few Americans thought the government, let alone the state or local government, had the authority to go as far as defining a meal served at a restaurant. Today’s public health overreach may prove conservatives’ worst fears of government intervention to be true. The possible upside of these overbroad government edicts could be the degree to which everyday Americans push back against nonsensical restrictions on individual activity. In the meantime, President Trump and conservatives around the United States should continue to push back against overreaching efforts to regulate individual liberty in the name of public health. 






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