Opinion: Daily Journal

Liquor sales at ABC stores surge, but quick alcohol reform could keep clubs, restaurants afloat

Liquor sales at Wake County stores, within the first 10 days of the shutdown last month, shot up some 80%, says Ike Wheeler.

Sales were much like those during the Christmas holidays, he says.

No surprise there, as many raced to buy spirits afraid that, mirroring Pennsylvania, North Carolina would close the state-run stores. That didn’t happen, and probably won’t. N.C. ABC stores, under proclamations by the governor and Wake County, are essential businesses.

Sales have slowed some, Wheeler, Wake County Alcoholic Beverage Control general manager, tells Carolina Journal. Wheeler and his staff, to their credit, are working to ensure people — customers and workers — stay safe, as well as six-feet apart.

“It’s all new to us,” he says. “We’re implementing stuff daily.”

Things such as stocking up on hand sanitizer — complements of N.C. distilleries — installing sneeze guards, and compelling workers to wear gloves. Masks are on the way, he says.

In the county’s larger stores — Sandy Forks, Wake Forest, and Cameron Village, for example — encompassing some 9,000- to 10,000-square feet with five to seven workers — just 25 people can shop at a time. Smaller stores, for instance, limit customers to 15 or fewer.

“We’re following everything to a T,” Wheeler says. “We’re doing everything we can do,” including sending employees with any sign of illness home for two weeks.

Nine Wake County stores are among the top 20 ABC stores in North Carolina, Wheeler says. North Carolina, via government-controlled stores, sold more than $1.2 billion in liquor and fortified wine in more than 400 stores, as of June 30, 2019, the ABC annual report says. Almost $423 million from the sales went to the state’s General Fund and the cities and counties where alcohol sales are allowed.

Yet despite the dramatic increase in sales after the COVID-19 shutdown, Wake County alone, Wheeler says, was down some $1.4 million in mixed-beverage sales compared to March 2019, meaning liquor sold to bars and restaurants, usually about 25% of sales.

Private clubs and restaurants are closed, except for take-out, and sealed to-go drinks aren’t allowed under state statute, nor are direct online sales. It’s up to the General Assembly to change that. 

Overall sales in Wake are up 20%, considering sales to restaurants and the clubs — N.C. doesn’t have “bars” — amount to zero. N.C. ABC implemented a buy-back program — which doesn’t help the numbers — and many businesses, says Wheeler, “jumped on it quick.”

Liquor stores are essential for myriad reasons. State and county workers keep their jobs, customers retain some semblance of normalcy, and the aforementioned tax money continues flowing. Alcohol is also essential for people with alcohol use disorder.

“Liquor stores may not seem to be essential businesses in these times of social distancing, but they are indeed essential to the survival of the nearly 2 million people in the U.S. with AUD,” writes Scientific American.

Untreated AUD, SA writes, is often managed with daily alcohol use, necessary to stave off cravings and withdrawal.

“The increasing rates of AUD among women, older adults, racial and ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged individuals is a public health emergency. … Because so few people have access to medications for AUD, access to alcohol becomes a matter of life or death,” SA says.

Each year, the U.S. records roughly 250,000 emergency department visits and 850 deaths related to alcohol withdrawal, George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, told Newsweek. “Abruptly limiting access to alcohol could lead to an increase in withdrawal among people with severe alcohol use disorder and add to the burden on the healthcare system.” 

Consider the wrongheaded — awful, really — decision by Pennsylvania to become the only state to close its state-run liquor stores because of COVID-19. Things haven’t gone well.

But even that’s being too kind to my home commonwealth, which shares a border with half a dozen states.

The impending order sent sales spiking to $29.9 million in a day —“the most spent on booze in Pennsylvania in one day, according to complete sales records dating back 12 years,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, according to the Wall Street Journal.

People trying to order online crashed the website.

“Many residents are now driving to neighboring states to buy alcohol, potentially bringing the virus with them,” the WSJ writes. “The Monongalia County Health Department has banned liquor sales to anyone without a West Virginia ID, and Delaware police are pulling over out-of-state drivers and instructing them to go home.”

Black market, anyone?

Granted, Virginia is a control state, but its policies veer toward the customer and sales, as opposed to ham-fisted control.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, this week announced a shift in policy allowing restaurants with mixed beverage licenses and distilleries with approved tasting rooms to provide delivery services and take-out mixed drinks, the Virginia ABC website says. Kentucky lawmakers passed similar legislation.

Yaël Ossowski, deputy director of the Consumer Choice Center, in a statement says, “Consumers can order thousands of household products and food from the internet, but curbs on shipping alcohol remain on the books. 

“Instead of emergency laws allowing home delivery of alcohol for a short period of time, states should immediately move to make these laws permanent to increase consumer choice for every American.” 

It’s easy to criticize the way North Carolina governs alcohol, particularly its labyrinthine system of local control. I’ve produced proverbial reams doing as much.

North Carolina, regarding alcohol sales, is closer to Virginia than to Pennsylvania but far from the free-market systems in Nevada, California, and even South Carolina.

Nevertheless, I applaud the efforts of ABC general managers throughout North Carolina, including people like Wheeler. 

The coronavirus crisis has created a sort of off-kilter momentum toward changing rules governing alcohol — throughout  the U.S. — for the good of customers. Opponents of free-market reforms for spirits would do well to listen to lawmakers from states that are looking ahead, as opposed to the politicians and lobbyists — like some in North Carolina — who are perpetually stuck in reverse. 

Our alcohol laws, for the most part, remain buried in the past, and that past isn’t so pretty. If we fail to keep working to revise arcane rules and restrictions, things — in a few months or even weeks — will surely look much worse.