For the first time in more than a decade, Feb. 14 is falling on a Sunday and that means in 14 states and hundreds of cities and counties across the U.S., liquor laws could be hampering toasts and sales.
So-called blue laws in states from Connecticut to Indiana restrict the sale of alcohol on Sunday, as do local regulations elsewhere. Arguments about repealing these laws broke out in 2009 as the recession swelled, and the promise of extra income started to weigh more heavily against religious reservations. Valentine's Day has exacerbated the issue in at least nine states, where restaurants and revenue-sensitive politicians would prefer not to lose out on the holiday cash.
Along with New Year's Eve and Mother's Day, Valentine's Day is one of the most profitable days of the year for dining establishments; seven other calendar days, including Super Bowl Sunday, have already been granted blue-law exemptions in some states. "We felt like Valentine's Day had just been overlooked," says Missouri State Representative Bill Deeken. In January, Deeken proposed "Love Legislation" that would allow restaurants and bars that lacked annual Sunday liquor licenses to be open and sell alcohol on Valentine's Day. Rob Agee, a Lohman, Mo., café owner who brought the issue to Deeken, estimates that the move could mean millions in extra sales for restaurants and hundreds of thousands of dollars in state revenue. The measure made it through two committees before being scuppered by House leaders, whom Deeken said worried the bill would appear frivolous to voters.
Missouri State Representative Larry Wilson, one of the only three people who voted against the bill, said he opposed it on moral grounds. "We shouldn't encourage people to partake of alcohol, especially on the Sabbath," he says, noting that passage of the bill would send a conflicting message to the public, since the legislature is currently working to strengthen state drunk driving laws.
On a local level, the push to undo the Sunday ban may face even stiffer opposition. Jerry Oberholtzer, mayor of Snellville, Ga., has been waging a six-year battle to legalize Sunday sales in hopes of bringing what he calls "white tablecloth restaurants" to town. But members of Snellville's First Baptist Church and others have thwarted his efforts.
The mayor had a brief victory in December when he was able to change an ordinance that finally allowed restaurants to serve on Sunday. Seven licenses were issued, and restaurants reported up to 20% increases in sales. But a local group filed suit challenging the legality of the process, and a judge issued an injunction weeks later suspending the licenses, after ruling that the issue of Sunday sales had to be taken to voters first. (On Feb. 9, the city appealed and Oberholtzer says he expects the issue to go to the state's Supreme Court.) "Restaurants just lost Super Bowl weekend and now they're going to lose Valentine's Day," Oberholtzer says. "It's been devastating to them."
The problem for Snellville is partly geographic: although alcohol can't be sold within the city limits on Sunday, it can be in the surrounding county, so restaurants can set up right outside town.
Robert Jenkins, a former Snellville councilman and one of the filers, supports the ban. "This is the Bible Belt," he says, "and a lot of folks still believe in keeping the Lord's Day holy. To a lot of people, buying whiskey and drinking on Sunday is not holy."
The examples go on. A request for allowing restaurants to sell alcohol this Valentine's Day in Oxford, Miss., was rejected without comment. In Connecticut, which is the only state in New England to still have a blue law prohibiting Sunday alcohol sales, mayors of the state's three largest cities petitioned unsuccessfully to have the law repealed citing a 2009 study that suggested Connecticut was losing millions in tax revenue to its neighbors.
The study includes a crucial caveat: its analysis "focuses on the impact of tax policy and tax revenue for the state, not the social policy implications of allowing Sunday sales," it reads. Various studies have produced conflicting results about whether Sunday sales lead to more drunk driving or even more alcohol consumption, and those issues remain stumbling blocks even when wine with Valentine's Day dinner is on the line.