Northam signs bills on Virginia restaurant flexibility, food insecurity during pandemic

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A bill to grant restaurants more flexibility to serve alcohol outside and a bill to establish a food assistance program were signed into law by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

“These new laws will make a real difference in the lives of Virginians and position our Commonwealth for a strong post-pandemic future,” Northam said in a statement. “I am grateful to legislators for their hard work this session and look forward to our continued partnership in the months ahead to build on this progress.”

House Bill 2266, sponsored by Del. Hala Ayala, D-Woodbridge, grants more flexibility to restaurants serving alcohol outdoors and during permitted events. It allows localities to pass ordinances to establish “outdoor refreshment areas” in which people would face fewer restrictions on consuming alcohol outdoors.

The bill effectively renames the “local special events” license to the “designated outdoor refreshment area” license. Under previous law, the special events license would allow the outdoor consumption of alcohol in a designated region for no more than three consecutive days and localities could only hold 16 events per year. This bill allows the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority to extend the duration and frequency of the events.

Localities could approve longer-term zones for this activity, which is designed to reduce the burden on businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants and bars took one of the hardest hits from the pandemic and subsequent economic restrictions. Although they are now allowed to operate at 100% capacity, the social distancing rules make full capacity impossible for some. There is also a midnight curfew for on-site alcohol sales still in place.

Senate Bill 1471 was also signed. The Senate version contained the same language as the House version. They both had substantial bipartisan support.

Two bills to establish the Virginia Agriculture Food Assistance Program and Fund were also signed by the governor. House Bill 2203 and Senate Bill 1188. Both bills also had substantial bipartisan support.

This legislation allows farmers and food producers to directly donate or sell food products to food banks, which is designed to increase the availability for families in need. The bill also prolongs a fund to provide money to charitable organizations to reimburse farmers or food producers for costs.

According to a fiscal impact statement, the current pilot program for this fund is supported by $1 million in federal CARES Act money. The bill would allocate $600,000 in general revenue money for the funds in the second year.

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