Why the state considers buying booze ‘essential’ during the coronavirus outbreak

Why the state considers buying booze ‘essential’ during the coronavirus outbreak
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It’s not uncommon these days to see lines of customers wrapping around the building at your local ABC store.

The state-run liquor stores remain open, despite the stay at home order that has mandated the closure of nearly every other retail business, from gyms to malls to restaurants, to curb the spread of coronavirus. Not only have the stores remained in business, but they’ve been slammed.

Retail sales at Mecklenburg County ABC stores soared in March, up 29 percent from the year before. As the Charlotte Ledger noted, customers feared the stores could close, so they stockpiled early in the month. To keep up with demand, local ABCs had to order additional shipments of bigger bottles like half-gallons, the Ledger reported.

Local officials keep saying that in order to “flatten the curve,” people need to stay home as much as possible. Outdoor exercise is OK, as long as you stay away from people. Necessary errands like grocery shopping are allowed, too.

So why are ABC stores considered “essential”?

The local ABC board said it deferred to the state for guidance on remaining open. The state, in turn, pointed to the executive order Governor Roy Cooper issued March 27.  ABC stores can remain open as long as they practice social distancing measures, says N.C. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Kelly Haight.


“People need to stay home as much as possible,” Haight said in an email. “And while restaurants, bars and other areas of communal gathering must be closed, people should be able to buy items used in their day to day lives.”

ABC store on Park Road

ABC store on Park Road

Nationwide, alcohol sales have also been surging. According to Nielsen data, U.S. sales of alcoholic beverages rose 55 percent in the week ending March 21. Other “vices” are on the rise, too, including the sale of weed in states where it’s legal, Axios noted. Consumption of porn is up, too.

Last week, Food Network star Ina Garten posted a video on Instagram jokingly demonstrating how to make cosmopolitans. “Stay safe, have a very good time, and don’t forget the cocktails,” Garten says after pouring an entire batch of the vodka drink into one gigantic martini glass.

Jokes aside, it’s more than just the stress of the situation driving people to drink.

N.C. Senator Jeff Jackson addressed the “essentialness” of ABC stores this week on Twitter. He pointed out that we have a lot of people chemically dependent on alcohol.

“If we suddenly cut off their access they would go into withdrawal and flood the emergency rooms, which we can’t have right now,” Jackson tweeted.

ABC stores are also an important source of revenue for local governments statewide.

North Carolina’s alcohol regulations date back to the Prohibition Era. We’re the only state where local governments control retail liquor sales. Most states have one central liquor regulating board; North Carolina has 170. 

On a quarterly basis, the local ABC makes distributions of funds to the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library System.

For the last three quarters, the ABC distributed $5,648,606 each to the city and county, according to Julia Paul, community outreach director of the Mecklenburg County ABC Board. Over that period, the library system has received $594,590.

The local ABC is also a big employer. Across the county, it has 319 employees, a mix of full-time and part-time workers. According to Paul, the local ABC has neither laid off nor furloughed anyone, nor does it plan to do so. In fact, it’s still hiring for part-time positions.

ABC stores have drastically shifted the way that they operate, though. Only one customer is allowed in at a time to pay, which is why you see those long lines. An employee meets each customer outside the door, the customer tells the employee what they want, then the employee retrieves the bottle and meets the customer at checkout.

During the outbreak, ABC stores are operating 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Saturday. On Tuesday and Thursday, certain local liquor stores open at 9 a.m. for customers 65 and older. 

“We are responding like any other business that was deemed essential in doing our duty and continue to do what we were called upon to do,” Paul said.

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