As COVID-19 Threatens Further Lockdowns, One Portland Bar Owner Promises Civil Disobedience

The Botanist House will serve cocktails to go in violation of OLCC rules starting on Thanksgiving.

With the spike in COVID-19 cases likely to lead to further restrictions by state and county officials on indoor gatherings just as the rainy season begins, one Oregon bar owner is taking matters into his own hands.

"Our already flooded ships cannot take on any more water from the final waves in the perfect storm of 2020," announced Matt Davidson, co-founder and owner of the Botanist House, a cocktail bar in the Pearl District.

"We need our lifeline, we need cocktails to go. Therefore, on the day before Thanksgiving, Nov. 25, we will begin a civil disobedience protest of our state's constitution by selling our cocktails to go."

Davidson led an effort earlier this year to convince the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to allow him and his fellow bar owners to sell takeout cocktails. That campaign fell on deaf ears.

Related: Washington State Temporarily Legalizes Takeout Cocktails. Oregon law prohibits that practice, but bars and restaurants are desperate for an exemption.

Davidson says 33 states have allowed cocktails to go, typically requiring that the drinks actually be cocktails, not just straight booze; that the containers be sealed; that they have a label listing all ingredients; and that the seller be properly licensed and ensure that the buyer is at least 21.

When he tried to enlist lawmakers in a plan to aid bar owners earlier this year, the nonprofit Oregon Recovers objected strenuously, as the group has to other concessions the OLCC has made during the pandemic, including allowing curbside pickup and home delivery of alcohol. The state's Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission has also opposed relaxing pre-COVID restrictions on alcohol sales, pointing to the state's already sky-high rates of substance abuse disorder.

In his letter outlining the proposed civil disobedience, Davidson makes clear that desperate times require desperate measures.

"In normal times, we business owners have a multitude of rotating priorities that all compete for top position daily. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has simplified our business priorities down to a single word, survival," he writes. "Our protest is not about increasing our top line revenue, driving more dollars to the bottom line, or expanding our market share. It is simply about doing what 70% of the country is already doing to help struggling businesses survive."

Davidson completed his message with a nod toward a possible outcome: "Legal counsel," he wrote, "have bail money ready to go."

OLCC spokesman spokesman Mark Pettinger says his agency's hands are tied.

Current Oregon law requires that drinks containing hard liquor be sold on premises only, except when they are in factory-sealed containers, such a pre-mixed gin-and-tonics in a can. Pettinger says that at least one legislator plans to introduce a bill in the 2021 session that would allow the sale of to-go drinks as Davidson proposes but until such a bill passes, the practice is against the law.

"Somebody from our compliance group will probably reach out to [Davidson]," Pettinger says. "We don't want to be the Grinch but there's a law on the books."