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Sunday liquor sale ban to end

Romney to sign law lifting the prohibition

After a 200-year ban based in Puritan tradition, Massachusetts liquor stores will gain the freedom to remain open seven days a week year-round starting next week, when Governor Mitt Romney plans to sign into law a measure ending the longtime state prohibition on Sunday alcohol sales.

The provision, part of a broader economic stimulus package approved by the Legislature last week, clears the way for immediate Sunday sales across the Commonwealth. Individual cities and towns may opt out of the law, through a vote of selectmen or other governing body.

"It seemed like a way to level the playing field," said Shawn Feddeman, a spokeswoman for Romney, who is expected to sign the bill Tuesday.

Vermont and New Hampshire allow liquor sales on Sunday, and since 1990 Massachusetts towns within 10 miles of northern borders have been allowed to join them. More recently, New York ended its ban on Sunday sales, putting towns in Western Massachusetts at a competitive disadvantage.

News of Romney's intentions was met with muted enthusiasm by liquor store owners and managers yesterday. Several said they will open on Sundays, for fear of lost business, but predicted that with the change, high Saturday volume will spread out over the two weekend days, for no real gain.

"I think it's going to push Saturday sales into Sunday, and we'll break even, but we'll have to pay people time-and-a-half to come in on Sundays," said David O'Sullivan, assistant manager at Liquor World on White Street in Cambridge. "But we'll be open because if we don't people go down the street, and then they get used to that, and we lose business."

The reaction was more enthusiastic among customers such as Gerald Buotte, who was stocking up on beer yesterday at the Liquor Locker in Gloucester, in preparation for today's Patriots game.

"Awesome," he said, upon hearing the news from a reporter. "I think it should happen. I don't like to travel to Ipswich to buy on Sunday . . . . Sunday is game day, and a lot of people drink."

The change in rules on liquor sales was made almost 30 years after most of Massachusetts' longstanding "blue laws" were repealed, including the ban on opening other kinds of stores on Sundays. Critics of the remaining law argued that it was unfair to restrict one kind of retailer and not others.

The move to year-round Sunday sales will not truly begin until the holidays are over; since 1992, liquor stores have been allowed to open on Sundays from the weekend before Thanksgiving through New Year's Day.

An attempt last month to lift the ban on Sunday sales in the state House of Representatives -- with a measure that would have forced each community to act to opt into the law -- failed, in part because of opposition from border stores reluctant to surrender their advantage. House members also objected to an amendment that would have allowed border stores to open at 9 Sunday mornings, said Representative Michael Festa, a Melrose Democrat.

The plan to be approved by Romney permits liquor sales to begin at noon on Sundays.

The Senate came up with the plan to include the measure in the $115 million economic stimulus package, improving its chance at passage, and their version flipped the structure of the provision, so that communities will be included unless they choose to withdraw.

Representative Peter Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat, pointed out that liquor stores don't have to open, if they choose not to, and that only those with seven or more full-time employees will be required to pay time-and-a-half to Sunday workers, easing the burden on "mom-and-pop" operations.

Romney's spokeswoman said significant revenue gains are not expected from the provision, and that its approval "was more of a question of fairness." She said the moral question of Sunday alcohol sales was not a consideration for Romney, who is a Mormon and does not drink.

Wayne Campbell, the owner of Gloucester's Liquor Locker, said he's not thrilled about opening on Sundays, though he acknowledged that it could help his business in the summer, when the remote coastal town becomes a tourist destination.

"This is the year 2003, and if you ride by the shopping centers on Sunday, they're mobbed," he said. "People want to shop, and the customers will dictate when we're open."

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