The middle of a pandemic is no time to be closing all the liquor stores

And yet that’s exactly what happened in Pennsylvania. For those not familiar with the Keystone State, there are no privately owned liquor stores. All wine and liquor is sold at state-operated packaged goods stores known as Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores, operated under the auspices of the state Liquor Control Board. Beginning Tuesday night, all of them were shut down by order of Governor Tom Wolf. Unlike New York, Pennsylvania classified the liquor stores as non-essential businesses. And just like that, a state with a population of more than 13 million people effectively went dry.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has announced that all Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores and licensee service centers across the state will be closed indefinitely after 9 p.m. Tuesday and the online store closed 5 p.m. Monday.

This follows the heels of Governor Tom Wolf’s announcement that all non-essential businesses should be closed to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“This was a tremendously difficult decision to make, and we understand the disruption our store closures will have on consumers and licensees across the commonwealth,” Board Chairman Tim Holden said in a release. “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.”

The sale of booze has long been considered one of the “recession-proof” businesses and for good reason. When times are good, many people like to celebrate by having a drink. When times are hard, some of us tend to drown our sorrows. Did the Governor think the demand for liquor and wine was simply going to dry up because of the pandemic? Compare the situation in Pennsylvania to DC, where booze is flying off the shelves, including unprecedented sales of Everclear.

To be fair, the Everclear sales are probably being driven more by people looking for the raw materials to make hand sanitizer than any sudden surge in its popularity as a drink. Everclear is almost pure ethanol. The proof is so high that you can burn it as fuel. I’ve tried it and it tastes terrible in my opinion, but it definitely packs a punch.

If Governor Wolf insists on treating the state’s liquor and wine stores as a non-essential business, it’s not just going to result in unhappy drinkers. People who live within a reasonable distance of the state’s northern border are going to be flooding into New York to do their shopping. And that’s precisely what’s already started happening. The manager of the store where my wife and I do our shopping said she’s already spoken to numerous customers who said they’d come up from PA. This is precisely the sort of mass travel that we’re supposed to be avoiding during the era of social distancing and self-isolation.

So is there a compromise available? A friend suggested a few possibilities that sound sensible to me so I’ll share them here. And these plans could work in any state where the flow of booze is suddenly being curtailed.

One possibility is that the state could allow on-premise sales of take-out liquor and wine in sealed containers at bars and restaurants, assuming they’re not also all closed. In New York, we’re allowing such places to remain in operation for take-out food so adding some drinks to the order should be just as feasible.

Another possibility is that Pennsylvania could temporarily authorize liquor sales in grocery stores. The grocery stores are essential services that will remain open anyway. They already have to train their workers to check IDs for the sale of tobacco or other age-restricted products. I’m sure they could handle it and the stores would benefit from the added sales. The authorization could be canceled once the shutdown is lifted.

If the Governor isn’t okay with any of those ideas, he could consider relaxing his order a bit and allowing at least some of the state stores to reopen. But to ensure safety, they could do it with reduced staff and limit the number of customers in the store at any given time. Or maybe not even have customers in the store. They could place orders remotely and pick up their purchase outside where the staff could check IDs without touching them.

Seriously, there should be some reasonable option that addresses the social distancing questions without effectively establishing a new era of prohibition in Pennsylvania. Things are getting pretty grim out there and I know for a fact that I’m not the only one feeling like they could use a drink.

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