NASHVILLE — Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission officials on Friday announced a crackdown to deter what officials say is a growing number of illegal alcohol sales by restaurants and bars to underage customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With normal alcohol regulations relaxed under state executive orders to allow curbside and to-go sales of liquor by the drink, commission Deputy Chief Brent Clayton said, "our agents have conducted underage compliance checks over the past couple of months, and quite frankly the compliance rate has been dismal."
Clayton said in the news release that about half of liquor-by-the-drink businesses were selling to underage customers for off-premise consumption. Tennessee's legal drinking age is 21.
Agents also investigated sales of alcohol for home delivery by bars and restaurants, also permissible under Gov. Bill Lee's executive orders. Enforcement officials say they found only a small percentage offering delivery of alcohol, with just five of the 150 establishments surveyed saying they offered the option.
Due to what officials said were decreases in available permitted alcohol servers as well as "significant marketplace disruptions in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic," establishments found selling to minors were only issued warning citations during May and June.
But with data showing 69 of 177 establishments checked since the COVID-19 pandemic's onset and the changes later found to be selling alcohol to minors — resulting in only a 69% compliance rate — commission leaders are now vowing to get tough.
The commission's chief law enforcement officer, Bond Tubbs, noted that in addition to the low compliance rate on underage sales, "we have received numerous complaints from the public regarding the sale of alcohol to minors."
As a result, Tubbs said, the agency will resume issuing regulatory citations, including monetary fines, to those selling to underage customers.
"Furthermore," Tubbs added, "the server or clerk will be issued a misdemeanor criminal citation and regulatory citation that could possibly lead to the revocation of their server permit."
Any establishment that has received a warning or regulatory citation can expect to be rechecked within 90 days. Besides bars and restaurants, the commission will check compliance at licensed package stores and food stores.
"Our hope, as always, is that we have 100% compliance from our licensees," Executive Director Russell Thomas said. "We see an increase in underage consumption throughout the summer months, and we want to do everything we can to discourage it."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.