Several weeks ago, Fili’s Pizza, a restaurant in Bethel, began selling beer and wine via curbside pickup and delivery. Alcohol delivery and pickup was authorized by Gov. Mike Dunleavy on April 14 to help Alaskan restaurants and bars generate revenue during the coronavirus-related business shutdowns. But some Bethel residents are saying that curbside alcohol sales should be banned under Bethel’s local option status, and the state says that's a valid argument.
In the last Bethel City Council meeting, council member Mark Springer urged the city manager to find a way to halt or limit Fili’s Pizza’s curbside alcohol sales. He said that Fili’s was basically acting as a liquor store for beer and wine.
“This is in complete contravention of the vote that we had for local option,” Springer said. “And that is, it's a slap in the face to the community, a slap in the face of the voters, and I won’t stand for it.”
Fili’s curbside alcohol sales are allowed by the April 14 emergency regulations announced by Gov. Dunleavy. The new rules allow alcohol deliveries as long as the order includes a meal, and the meal must account for at least 50 percent of the purchase cost. But for curbside pickup, the rules are more lax. Customers can purchase just alcohol, and there are no limits on how much they can buy.
In Bethel, these emergency state regulations contradict local law. Last October, Bethel residents voted for a local option, which only allows restaurants to sell beer and wine for “onsite consumption.” City Attorney Elizabeth "Libby" Bakalar called Fili’s curbside alcohol sales a “loophole” that utilizes the state’s regulations to override local option laws.
“What councilor Springer said about a de facto liquor store I think is a real concern, and it’s a loophole that really couldn’t have been foreseen,” Bakalar said.
The state says that Bethel has the power to opt out of the temporary regulations allowing alcohol deliveries and curbside sales.
James Hoelscher, the state’s chief of enforcement for Alcohol and Marijuana Control said, “If a local community wants to change that, or if they do not want this to occur in their community, the local government has a final say in how an operating licensee operates.”
All it would take, Hoelscher said, is an email from the city to the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office saying that curbside alcohol sales are not legal under local law, and his office would enforce that.
“We take the stance that a local government, if they state that it is not followed within their laws and the rules, we are not going to argue that,” Hoelscher said.
Bakalar said that the Bethel City Council would have to vote on sending such a protest to the state office. Council members did not immediately reply to KYUK on whether they would support a protest.
Todd Perez is the owner of Fili’s Pizza and former manager of Caribou Trader’s Liquor Store. Perez bought the restaurant after the liquor store closed when Bethel went under local option. He said that he didn’t know anyone was upset about the curbside alcohol sales, and said that he would be willing to hear people out if they wanted the restaurant to stop the practice.
“I'm willing to listen to anything, but nobody's approached me,” Perez said.
Perez said that he began the curbside sales and delivery when dining-in was limited to try to make up for lost sales. He said that even now, after fully reopening, revenue is still down 70 percent.
“I think the governor's intent was to make it so that businesses have a chance to survive through this whole thing,” Perez said. “We didn't lay off anybody, so I think we're doing something right.”
Perez also doesn’t think curbside beer and wine sales are a problem in Bethel. He said that Fili’s customers are not the same crowd that came to his liquor store.
“They want to have wine with their dinner. We don't have the people wandering around the streets,” Perez said. “The vast majority of people in Bethel understand the problem is not with beer and wine.”
Perez also pointed out that Bethel isn’t dry, it’s damp. People can still order alcohol from Anchorage, and he maintains that Fili’s selling beer and wine is no different. Plus, he says, Fili’s prices are higher than the alcohol ordered from Anchorage. The restaurant charges 5 to 6 dollars per can of beer even when customers buy in bulk, and wine costs 20 to 35 dollars a bottle.
Perez said that he may end curbside alcohol sales if that’s what the community wants. The city council may also force him to stop. If neither of these occur, the state regulations allowing curbside alcohol sales and delivery will expire August 13.
If you have any questions about alcohol rules and enforcement in Alaska, you can email the state Alcohol And Marijuana Control Office at email@example.com.