A bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhushan, R Subhash Reddy and M R Shah, in a hearing conducted through video conferencing, also asked the Madras High Court to decide the pending pleas on the issue of sale of liquor by government shops in the state.
The top court, on May 15, had paved the way for reopening of state-owned liquor vends and had stayed a Madras High Court order which had ordered their closure for the time being on the ground that there was violation of guidelines, such as social distancing, meant to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
The order had come on the appeal of state government's firm, Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC), which sells alcoholic beverages in the state. It was submitted that the High Court, in its May 8 order, should not have imposed its own conditions for sale of liquor by entering into the state's domain of policy making.
The top court on Monday ordered that its stay order will remain operational till High Court decides the petitions seeking regulation on sale of liquor in view of pandemic concerns.
"This Court passed an interim order staying the interim orders of the High Court by order dated May 15. Learned counsel for the respondents submits that the writ petitions are being heard by the High Court and the interim orders passed by this Court may be allowed to continue till the disposal of the writ petitions.
"We are of the view that the writ petitions which are being heard may be decided by the High Court. The interim protection granted by this Court on May 15, shall continue till disposal of the writ petitions," the bench said in its order. The state government's firm had opposed the order of the HC asking it to stop the counter sale and sell the liquor online.
"We do not have tender services, it is impossible. How can we sell online. There are many issues regarding adulteration and other such considerations. How can we trust someone to carry liquor," it had said. However, the counsel appearing for the persons who had moved the High Court, had said the sale of liquor was not a fundamental right and precautionary measures must be taken in view of COVID-19 pandemic.
The Tamil Nadu government on May 8 had moved the top court challenging the High Court order saying that the closure of such shops would lead to "grave losses" in state's revenue and complete halt in commercial activities.
The High Court had ordered closure of liquor outlets noting that there were huge crowds and no social distancing was being maintained by tipplers. It, however, had allowed doorstep delivery of booze through online mode.
The appeal had said that the state government decided to open the liquor shops on May 5 after keeping in mind the directives issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on May 1 allowing the sale of liquor in the state subject to restrictions such as ensuring social distancing.
After a dry spell of 43 days due to the COVID-19 lockdown since late March, liquor sales resumed at TASMAC outlets in Tamil Nadu, except state capital Chennai, on May 7.
Heavy rush was witnessed at most places with people standing in serpentine queues even as the move to allow sale of liquor came in for flak from opposition parties and others, who raised apprehensions that it would lead to further spread of the novel coronavirus, which as of May 8 has affected over 6,000 people in the state.