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Retailers may be closer to having liquor in major Florida stores

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – You might soon see whiskey next to Wheaties in big box stores thanks to a judge’s ruling, but advocates for traditional liquor stores say the ruling is a far cry from putting an end to the debate over where hard liquor can be sold.

For the past five years, dozens of lobbyists have worked lawmakers to allow the sale of hard alcohol in major stores instead from a separate storefront.

In 2017, a motion passed by one vote but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Trying a new strategy, Walmart and Target turned to an administrative law judge, successfully challenging a rule that defined items customarily sold in restaurants.

“Anybody can go to these places [restaurants] and see that they're selling stuff that isn't hot and cold food and beverages,” said Will Spicola, an Attorney representing Walmart, Target and Top Golf.

Spicola says the way the rule had been applied prohibited retailers from acquiring consumption on premises licenses, which, if granted, would allow them to sell liquor in their main stores while businesses like hotels and bowling allies got away with selling products off the state’s list.

Retailers hope with the rule gone they might now be able to acquire a license. 

“A lot of these big box retailers have restaurants,” said Spicola. "They have concession areas where they're selling food and drink to their patrons. There could be an opportunity there for them to get a license to sell things just like every other restaurant does.”

While the ruling favors retailers, there’s nothing in it prohibiting the state from creating a new rule blocking the big box stores.

Attorney Will Hall with the Florida Independent Spirits Association says a new rule would likely add t-shirts and branded merchandise and not much else. 

“If the point of all of this at the beginning was to basically allow every item in a Costco warehouse to be customarily sold in restaurants, this ruling doesn't do that,” said Hall.

The state could also choose to appeal. In that case, the ruling would be put on hold until it gets a second look from the First District Court of Appeals.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.