Are liquor stores really essential?

Are liquor stores really essential?
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The alcohol industry and some of its patrons have pilloried Pennsylvania’s decision to usher in what they call a new era of Prohibition. Take a step back from the rhetoric, however, and Pennsylvania’s policy makes a lot of sense. Other states might want to pay attention.

According to one recent count, at least 41 grocery workers in the U.S. have died from coronavirus, with thousands of others testing positive in recent weeks. Seven out of 10 Americans now say that going to the grocery store is a moderate or large risk to their health, in part because many retail workers still do not have basic personal protective equipment, including masks.

If nothing else, closing down Pennsylvania’s “state stores” relieved some of the pressure, making it easier to provide PPE to other retail workers. But the net benefits go much further.

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Consider, for a start, that you can still buy alcohol in Pennsylvania. The state’s over 350 bulk beer distributors are still open for business. Consumers can also buy beer and wine at many supermarkets. You can even buy liquor from certain in-state distilleries licensed to make direct consumer sales, and from the online “state store” website, although that requires some patience and persistence. All of this is to say that any comparison to Prohibition is overwrought, as it will be in other states that decide to pursue similar policies.

Admittedly, the store closures have led many Pennsylvania residents to travel across state lines in pursuit of hard liquor. That in turn has prompted authorities in neighboring states to enact new policies to deny sales to out-of-state residents. Critics point to these stories of modern day liquor “smuggling” as proof that the store closures are actually undermining social distancing. One commentator has even gone so far as to argue that “the move negatively impacted public health in Pennsylvania, the opposite of the intended effect.”

This is hogwash. As of April 23 Pennsylvania had 37,053 confirmed cases of corona virus, the fifth most in the country. Closing down liquor stores may provoke a few avid drinkers to hit the road in search of supplies, but let’s not kid ourselves: The primary impact will simply be fewer in-person transactions to purchase alcohol. The public health benefits are obvious. 

Retail has become an extremely hazardous occupation. So long as the pandemic continues to rage on, every shopping trip, every in-person commercial transaction, literally threatens retail workers’ lives. That is why public health authorities are advising consumers to “[o]nly visit the grocery store, or other stores selling household essentials, in person when you absolutely need to.”

Is alcohol a “household essential” that we “absolutely need to” buy in person? Of course not. At least not for all but the unlucky few of us gripped by severe alcoholism. For most Americans, foregoing a trip to the liquor store poses no more than an inconvenience. Indeed, over two thirds of adults report drinking either less than four drinks per week, or nothing at all.

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This is important to recognize not just in Pennsylvania, but in other “alcoholic beverage control” states, where closing venues that sell alcohol will not cut off consumers from other, genuinely essential goods.

Liquor stores offer an easy cost-benefit analysis for mitigating COVID-19 risk. They sell nothing but alcohol, a carcinogen whose misuse costs the U.S. economy an estimated $249 billion per year, or about $2.05 a drink. As the pandemic stretches on and governments try to open back up local economies, intrusive measures — such as mandatory quarantines, — will inevitably attract serious consideration as a means to tamp down new waves of the infection. Compared to the difficult decisions those strategies will entail, promoting social distancing through liquor store closures is a no brainer.

Thomas Gremillion is the director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America.