SALT LAKE CITY — Although the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to businesses across the Beehive State, March and early April was a busy time for Utah’s state liquor stores.
During March and early April the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control saw a slight increase in sales when compared to the same time last year — despite bars and restaurants no longer purchasing alcohol.
In 2019, the DABC reported just over $51 million in sales from March 7 to April 13 — in 2020, the department saw roughly $54 million, even though bars and restaurants stopped putting orders in around the second week of March.
Essentially, personal sales have increased so much in recent weeks that they replaced the revenue generated from restaurants and bars, which typically amounts to 15% to 20% of overall sales, according to Terry Wood, DABC director of communications.
“There’s a lot of people that are probably anxious or stressed because of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Wood, who thinks the added stress of the pandemic, combined with the widespread closure of bars and restaurants and overall increase in panic buying, is driving Utahns to the liquor store.
Utah isn’t alone, and the marketing research firm Neilsen recently reported a nationwide spike in alcohol sales. In the third week of March, Americans bought 55% more booze — tequila, gin and pre-mixed cocktails were up 75%, wine at 66% and beer at 42%. Meanwhile online sales rose 243%.
Utah’s liquor stores have remained open during the pandemic, and in Salt Lake County they fall under the grocery umbrella of the stay safe, stay home order. Patrons are asked to adhere to social distancing guidelines, which often results in long lines outside as DABC employees monitor the number of people in the store and enforce the 6-foot rule. On Tuesday, Wood said each location will soon receive boxes of gloves for customers to wear when checking out.
The long lines and time spent waiting around hasn’t impacted sales. However, Wood said, he constantly receives emails and phone calls from people asking why curbside delivery isn’t available.
“Yes, it would make things safer all around for preventing the spread of the coronavirus, but state law does not allow for that,” he said. Such a change would need a green light from the state Legislature or governor’s office. “We just don’t have the authority to do that right now.”
And while liquor stores will likely stay open for the remainder of the pandemic, some have been quick to question alcohol’s essential status.
“If we allow our economy to collapse, essentially we’re going to have government breadlines, and we’re going to have liquor stores open to continue to poison us?” said Eric Moutsos, who recently founded the group Utah Business Revival that backed a weekend rally in Salt Lake City to protest the government’s response to the pandemic.
“You’re going to close churches down, essential for someone’s spiritual well-being and mental well-being,” he said, “but you’re going to open up liquor stores?”
Wood called the argument an “apples to oranges comparison.”
“The purpose (of closing churches) was just so people didn’t gather close together, and we’re limiting the amount of people that can go in a store at any given time,” he said. “There are people who just want to have a drink at the end of the day, and they can function well that way, and we wouldn’t want to all of a sudden stop that.”