- The Washington Times
Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Fears about the COVID-19 outbreak for some might be settled with a relaxing cocktail, but doses of such self-medication outside the home have become increasingly difficult to administer.

Restaurants and bars from Manhattan to Santa Monica are closing or have closed, and authorities in some places have done more than issue last call. At 9 p.m. Tuesday in Pennsylvania, the state’s Liquor Control Board ordered wine and spirits stores — the only places to buy whiskey and the like — closed “until further notice.”

In other words, it’s beer only in Pennsylvania — starting on St. Patrick’s Day, no less.

“This was a tremendously difficult decision to make, and we understand the disruption our store closures will have on consumers and licencees across the commonwealth,” said board Chairman Tim Holden. “But in these uncertain and unprecedented times, the public health crisis and mitigation effort must take priority over the sale of wine and spirits as the health and safety of our employees and communities is paramount.”

In most states, the situation for those seeking a bottle is not as dire as in Pennsylvania, particularly at the retail level. New York and New Jersey have relaxed rules so that restaurants, which have been closed for dine-in service, can include wine or drinks in takeout and delivery orders. Governors in Maryland, North Carolina and Texas have eased taxes or restrictions on some slivers of the alcohol sector as state and local officials ban diners from eating and drinking inside restaurants.

But in some places, the images are more commonly associated with Prohibition. Police have cleared partyers from New Orleans’ famous Bourbon Street, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom has cracked down on wine tasting in the Napa and Sonoma valleys.

That has meant a severe hit for many winemakers, as their direct-to-consumer sales virtually stopped after businesses closed Monday.

“We made a decision Sunday we would close on Monday, and that isn’t a good thing,” said Jill Klein Matthiasson, owner of Matthiasson winery in Napa.

At Matthaisson, which makes largely upscale wines, tastings were by appointment only and small — usually two to six people, Ms. Matthiasson said. While that is small enough to fall within “social distancing” limits of 10-person groups, her employees were not comfortable with the risk given the intimate setting.

“Our biggest concern is the safety of our employees,” she said. “And our second-biggest concern is still being able to have employees.”

With many Americans banned from sipping a martini with their steak at a favorite restaurant — President Trump has urged consumers to buy takeout instead — they are turning to their local liquor store.

The few employees at Putnam Plaza Super Liquors in East Hartford, Connecticut, have been busy filling orders.

“They’re buying everything,” said owner Mike Andreo. “It started last Thursday, and it’s been busy ever since.”

Sales also have been good at Martin Wine Cellar, which has five locations and roughly 100 employees across southeastern Louisiana.

“We’ve had some good days,” owner Cedric Martin said. “We’re really seeing the impact this week as people are stocking up for the long haul.”

Most of his imported European stock is “already on the water, so we’re ahead of the game there,” Mr. Martin said when asked about disruptions from hard-hit Italy, France and Spain.

At Putnam Plaza, a 20,000-square-foot store, a handful of full-time staff has no intention of closing or trimming hours absent a legal order, but they are stretched thin and wary of the crowds.

“We’re basically sanitizing the place every 30 minutes, right down to the keypads for the credit cards,” Mr. Andreo said.

They aren’t the only ones taking extra precautions.

At Modern Liquor and Sherry’s Wine and Spirits in the District of Columbia, customers and staff are required to wear gloves.

Stocking up on booze is a common theme on social media, particularly among those who believe brown liquor helps fight the virus. Photos of spray bottle tops attached to scotch and bourbon were ubiquitous on Twitter and Facebook posts, often accompanied by jokes about refusing to see the world end sober.

“In the midst of coronavirus confirmed in [St. Louis], forget hand sanitizer,” Molly Bozak tweeted. “I will now be stocking up on alcohol. The thought of being quarantined in my house for 2 weeks with THREE kids will require a lot of it.”

Liquor has become a bigger part of Americans’ drinking habits in recent years. A decline in beer drinking has been accompanied by a surge in distilled spirits, which now comprise 37.8% of the U.S. market and employ some 1.6 million workers. Supplier sales of liquor rose to a record $29 billion in 2019, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Since 2008, the number of craft distilleries in the U.S. has grown from 40 to 2,100, and many of those are getting hammered by the outbreak, said Chris Swonger, president of the Distilled Spirits Council. Mr. Swonger said he is working with lawmakers to bring some relief to those small businesses, which will need debt restructured and perhaps help keeping their workers employed.

“We recognize the gravity of the public health risk, but over the next couple of weeks, this is going to have a devastating impact on the hospitality industry, distilleries, bartenders, restaurants and bars,” Mr. Swonger said. “We’re trying to figure out ways that everyone can keep their doors open.”

The spirits group was “disappointed” by Pennsylvania’s sweeping decision Tuesday, noting that stores in some of the other 17 “controlled” alcohol states have found innovative ways to stay open. Some of them have rotated staff among fewer package stores, allowed small numbers of customers in at a time, required credit card purchases or limited hands on glass by having only one staffer retrieve requested bottles.

“We’ve even seen people doing happy hour through Facetime, people enjoying a nice cocktail responsibly,” he said.

⦁ Madison Hirneisen contributed to this report.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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