Kid walks into a bar . . .
By Jessica Key
When BC premier Christy Clark announced that the Liberal government was supporting a revamp of “antiquated licensing rules,” the province’s imbibers put down their pints and listened up. The 73 changes stemming from “The Liquor Policy Review” led by Parliamentary Secretary John Yap are already appearing in pubs and lounges, but it will be a while before you’ll be able to buy a bottle of Pinot Grigio at your neighbourhood Thriftys or Save-On-Foods — if ever.
Allowing wine, beer, and spirits to be sold in grocery stores is among the biggest of the reforms, and arguably the most talked about. Others include allowing children in pubs and bars during certain hours if accompanied by their parents; eliminating the fencing around beer gardens, allowing festival goers to stay with non-drinking friends and family; variable pricing at different times of day (ie. “happy hours”); and permitting wine and beer to be sampled (and sold) at events such as farmers markets. The changes are expected to be completely implemented by the winter of 2015.
Liquor has been available in grocery stores in most of the United States for quite some time. The BC government intends to implement a “store within a store” variation, allowing wine, beer, and spirits to be sold from cash registers separate from those for other items.
However, due to a rule stating that no new liquor licences can be issued within one kilometre of an existing outlet, only two grocery stores in the Vancouver area will actually be eligible to stock liquor. The province has chosen not to raise the cap on the number of liquor licences, meaning that stores interested in adopting the changes would need to buy and/or transfer an existing one. Megastores such as Costco and Walmart have huge buying power, which could potentially lead to a price drop for consumers should they be able to obtain liquor permits. But the the fact that most grocery stores in the province are already within a kilometre of an existing liquor store is liable to reduce the convenience of the store-within-a-store method.
That’s probably just fine with parents concerned the new laws will allow minors easier access to liquor. However, cashiers will be trained to
the same standards used at BCL stores to help avoid this issue (although as long as older siblings exist, minors will have access to alcohol, wherever it is sold).
Trent Belcourt, manager and part owner of Deez Bar and Grill in Qualicum Beach, is particularly excited about the province allowing happy hours. “Right now we have to run our drink specials all day. Happy hour laws will let us expand those specials.” Happy hours will be subject to minimum pricing guidelines, but proprietors will be allowed to promote liquor sales during particular parts of the night — for example, the last period of a hockey game, or the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
Belcourt also welcomes the new rules around kids and parents. “It’s nice for families to have more options to dine together.” He thinks, though, that children should remain in certain areas, and away from the bar. “Some demographics don’t like kids, just like parents don’t want kids next to drunks.”
At least one local bar patron agrees. ““If I want to crack a dirty joke,” he says, “I don’t want to be worrying about a young kid overhearing it.”
The changes will be felt in arenas and stadiums too. Previously, only beer, wine, or coolers were available at sporting events, except in private boxes. Now, mixed drinks will also be permitted. And at music festivals, beer tents are already becoming a thing of the past. “Parents should be able to wander the grounds with their kids and watch the band,” BC Justice Minister Susan Anton told a press conference in February, “rather than be caged off in the corner just so they can enjoy a pint.”
Festival organizers will also benefit from a simplified application process for special occasion licences. The liquor branch currently receives 25,000 requests for special occasion licences a year, a process Anton says has become ridden with red tape. Applications will be moved online, and annual permits made available for organizations holding occasional events throughout the year.
It all adds up to a much more relaxed approach to liquor regulation in BC — if not at your neighbourhood grocery store, then almost certainly at your neighbourhood pub.