By now, we all know COVID-19 has thrown the Texas economy for a loop. Shutdowns and quarantine orders hit businesses hard, from retail to entertainment to food and beverage. Devastating drops in sales led to limited hours, increased unemployment, and even temporary or permanent closures.
In some ways, the alcohol industry has weathered the crisis as well as, or better than, other industries. Across the nation, states declared liquor stores an essential business alongside health care and utilities. Breweries began brewing hand sanitizer, effectively making lemonade from coronavirus-shaped lemons. Online alcohol sales soared 234 percent over the previous year. Alcohol sales via all outlets rose 55 percent in the first two weeks of the pandemic and remained higher than normal throughout the summer.
On-premise alcohol service in restaurants and bars didn’t fare as well. As restaurants shifted to delivery and to-go services, profit margins lagged for establishments unable to sell alcoholic drinks for off-premise consumption.
Texas responded like many states: by easing restrictions to assist floundering bars and restaurants as much as possible. Throughout the closures, phased openings, re-closures, and re-openings that plagued our summer of 2020, restaurants and retailers have been allowed to deliver alcohol to homes and sell it via to-go and drive-thru orders. When the re-opening requirement that a business receive 51 percent of its profits from food hampered business for bars and wineries, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission allowed bars to apply for restaurant permits.
We now see a variety of unintended consequences from these relaxed policies. Local restaurants serve drive-thru drinks “sealed” with a piece of tape over the straw hole. Other establishments provide a to-go cup of margarita mix with a separate small bottle of tequila that patrons can mix whenever or wherever they decide to drink it. Makeshift patios are popping up around restaurants to increase seating areas. One Hill Country winery did an end-run around TABC restrictions by setting up an outdoor bar in its own “off-premise” parking lot. Third-party delivery drivers, in an effort to protect their own health, leave alcohol orders on the doorstep without checking identification of the recipient. Retail clerks face the same ID-checking dilemma when confronted with masked customers, and a social media challenge inspired teens to purchase alcohol dressed as elderly shoppers wearing masks.
These consequences have public health advocates conflicted and concerned. SAPD reports that domestic violence – long known to be linked to alcohol use – increased 18 percent within a month of the pandemic onset. DWI rates are varied, due to the cancellation of Fiesta and other events, but in general they’re not much lower than normal. More people across the U.S. are drinking while working remotely. Rather than improving symptoms of anxiety or loneliness, alcohol actually worsens depression and anxiety. Boston University professor David Jernigan predicts the pattern of heavier-than-usual drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to future increases in alcohol use disorders, similar to spikes after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
More than anything, we worry about the effects of pandemic drinking on youth. One Canadian study reported in July that more adolescents are using alcohol during the COVID-19 restrictions. Drinking at home means more youth are watching and learning from their parents’ behavior; parental drinking is a known predictor of a child’s own drinking behavior. More alcohol in the house means youth have easier access, and it comes at a time when kids have fewer protective factors such as sports, church, and academic activities. Young brains are especially susceptible to the effects of alcohol: drinking before age 18 greatly increases the chances of dependence later in life, as well as the risks of violence, accidents, and suicide.
None of us want to see businesses fail. We cautiously accepted the relaxed alcohol restrictions as desperate measures for unquestionably desperate times. The thing is, times won’t always be desperate. At some point we will return to a normal way of life – perhaps with a few new habits like regular handwashing and masks during flu season, but normal.
However, alcohol industry advocates are working hard to convincing state lawmakers to relax alcohol restrictions permanently. Texas alcohol laws have evolved over decades to a precarious balance between industry profits and public safety. Laws change slowly for a reason: incremental change is permanent change. The COVID-19 alcohol policies are a desperate measure designed to save jobs and small businesses during an unprecedented, unanticipated emergency. Writing emergency policies into permanent law will undo years of progress in public health, public safety, prevention, and mental health. Communities like San Antonio will see increased addiction, drunk driving, domestic violence, underage drinking, property damage, sexual assault, and other social problems already linked to excessive alcohol use.
San Antonio loves to party, but we have a duty to keep the party as safe as possible. Our new normal – whatever that looks like – must have the same mindful regulation of alcohol that protects the safety of all our citizens. Otherwise, COVID-19 will have worse long-term consequences than it already does.