When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived last year, alcohol and cannabis retailers in Washington were able to mimic their restaurant and retail brethren by embracing carry-out and curbside service models, thanks to temporary exemptions to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board’s normal sales rules.
Most of the exemptions were scheduled to end July 31 until the Legislature passed a bill earlier this year that allowed the Liquor and Cannabis Board to make the curbside rules permanent — but only for alcohol. Cannabis retailers say they’ve been left high and dry, even as the more-virulent delta variant has reignited case numbers and prompted renewed health safety measures.
“We have the fun option of telling our patients who are immunocompromised and scared to come into the store during the outbreak (that they) now have to do that to be serviced,” said Gareth Kautz, owner of the High End Market Place cannabis shop in downtown Vancouver.
In the three weeks since the curbside allowance expired, most Clark County cannabis retailers have retained their online storefronts but now require customers to physically enter their stores in order to ring up and collect their purchases.
Only a small fraction of High End customers used the curbside service option, Kautz said, and it was actually more cumbersome because staff would usually have to make multiple trips out to the same car to check IDs and collect payment before bringing out the orders. But he said the option was important from a customer service standpoint, and for the safety of immunocompromised customers.
“It was a low percentage, but it was enough,” he said.
Main Street Marijuana co-owner Adam Hamide said the chain’s Uptown location relied heavily on to-go service through a makeshift walk-up window facing the store’s rear parking lot, another innovation that had to be shuttered when the temporary rule exemption ended. More than a third of the store’s customers had been picking up orders outdoors, he said.
The Liquor and Cannabis Board gave retailers a 30-day heads up that the rules were going to revert, he said, which didn’t come as a huge shock back in June because widespread vaccine availability appeared to have brought the end of the pandemic within sight.
“That’s the thing, at the time it seemed like a reasonable decision,” he said. “It was based on the case numbers, and they were coming down, and (curbside service) was a temporary allowance that the LCB granted due to extenuating circumstances.”
Three months later, the outlook is a lot less rosy. The delta variant has pushed case numbers back up to near-record levels, and Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week that he would re-impose a statewide indoor mask mandate for all residents, regardless of vaccination status, to try to bring the pandemic back under control.
The loss of curbside and walk-up service is much more painful in this new context, Hamide said. Online sales took a slight dip this week, a change which he attributed to customers being unwilling to physically enter the store to pick up their orders.
Hamide and Kautz both said the stricter rules have impacted their ability to help customers comply with the mask mandate. Previously, if a customer complained about having to wear a mask in the store or claimed that they couldn’t wear one, Main Street staff could offer to meet them outside the store as a compromise, Hamide said — but that’s not an option anymore.
The rollback also means that stores can’t offer hand sanitizer or masks to customers who need them, Kautz said, because regular Liquor and Cannabis Board rules forbid cannabis retailers from giving away any free items, whether they contain cannabis or not. Customers who forget their masks have to be turned away.
The various rule exemptions for alcohol and cannabis were permitted under the terms of an emergency order Inslee issued last year, according to LCB spokeswoman Julie Graham, but they were required to have a July 31 cutoff. Extending the exemptions beyond that date would require a permanent rule change, she said, which would need to be approved by the Legislature.
That was the intent of House Bill 1480, which passed earlier this year. It gave the agency permission to draft a new set of rules for alcohol sales — currently in progress, Graham said — and it allowed for the existing rule exemptions for alcohol to be extended up to two more years in the interim.
The legislation didn’t maintain all of the temporary alcohol allowances — for example, an exemption allowing the liquor industry to help manufacture hand sanitizer expired as scheduled on July 31 — but the curbside, takeout and delivery service exemptions for growlers, pre-mixed cocktails and other alcohol products were all extended.
HB 1480 made no mention of the cannabis sales exemptions, and the Liquor and Cannabis Board currently has no plans to ask lawmakers to take another look, Graham said.
“That’s not under discussion right now, in part because the cannabis industry has done pretty well during the pandemic,” she said.
Bars and restaurants had to switch to exclusively takeout or delivery service or shut their doors entirely for the first several weeks of the pandemic, she noted, and they continued to operate under occupancy restrictions for much of the subsequent year, incurring significant financial hardship.
Cannabis retailers had a comparatively easy time, because they were classified as essential businesses and allowed to remain open during the initial lockdown, she said, so the agency is prioritizing efforts to help the liquor industry.
The industry tracking website 502Data bears that out, showing that statewide cannabis sales tax revenue saw a modest bump at the start of the pandemic and has remained relatively consistent since then. Sales at Clark County cannabis retailers have also avoided any major swings in the past year.
Still, Hamide and Kautz said the rollback ended up coming at a particularly inopportune time, and is forcing the industry to navigate the delta surge and the renewed mask mandate with fewer customer service tools.
“It puts us in a little bit of an awkward position,” Hamide said.