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Senate passes 'brunch bill' expanding Sunday morning alcohol sales

The fight for Sunday morning mimosas scored a victory in the Georgia Senate on Tuesday.

Senators voted 38-18 in favor of Senate Bill 17, which would allow on-premise consumption to begin at 11 a.m. on Sundays. Off-premise sales, such as those at supermarkets, would remain illegal until 12:30 p.m. on Sundays.

The bill was revised by the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries and brought to the Senate floor on Tuesday as a substitute bill. The original legislation also included grocery stores in the establishments that would be allowed to sell alcohol beginning at 11 a.m. on Sundays.

That provision was stripped from the substitute legislation, but the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, noted that the new bill includes wineries in the list of businesses allowed to sell alcohol before noon.

If signed into law, the time change would mean an earlier start for many North Georgia wineries, which are either closed on Sundays or open at 12:30 p.m.

The bill has the support of the restaurant industry, including restaurants in Gainesville and on the square, which is known for its brunch service, because it would boost sales and allow a more even spread of brunch customers throughout Sunday morning — and stop confusing out-of-state tourists who are unfamiliar with local rules about alcohol sales.

But even if the bill becomes law, it’s not a guarantee that it would apply to all areas of the state. A provision added by the regulated industries committee would require a local referendum before earlier alcohol sales could be allowed.

Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis, of Chickamauga, said he is personally against expanding alcohol sales but is in favor of the bill because it gives local communities the ability to decide whether or not to allow earlier sales.

“If this ever came to Chickamauga, … I would want my constituents to have the right to vote,” Mullis said. “I support the right to the ballot.”

Restaurant groups have been pushing the so-called “brunch bill,” arguing that it is unfair that government-owned facilities such as Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium do not face the same restrictions.

GOP Sen. Bill Heath, of Bremen, spoke against the proposal on the Senate floor, saying many lawmakers come to Atlanta in order to fix individual and societal problems — including the number of children in the state adoption system — that have their roots in alcohol abuse.

Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, quoted Bible verses and the state motto of “wisdom, justice, moderation” in opposing Unterman’s measure.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to this issue, we’re losing our moderation,” he said.

The bill was first proposed in 2017, but didn’t clear the Georgia General Assembly during the session. The original version of the bill would have moved alcohol sales back to 10:30 a.m.

Sunday alcohol laws, also called blue laws, vary in the Southeast. In Alabama, Sunday alcohol sales are prohibited at the state level unless specifically approved by counties and cities — leading to a wide range of local rules and ordinances about alcohol sales. In South Carolina, restaurants may begin serving alcohol at noon in every county of the state, but some counties prohibit Sunday sales completely or for certain hours at grocery stores.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.