The dark reason why liquor stores are considered essential businesses

  • Liquor stores were deemed essential businesses in almost every state in the US as other stores were forced to shut down.

  • The stores were deemed essential in part because of how dangerous it could be for alcohol-dependent people to undergo withdrawal, especially at a time when hospitals are stretched thin due to COVID-19.

  • Shutting down liquor stores could also convince people to travel farther to get alcohol and spark backlash from angry citizens.

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As states deemed liquor stores essential businesses, it was a lighthearted joke for many people who were happy to have an extra glass of wine while sheltering in place.

However, for some, the decision to make liquor stores essential was deeply serious.

Christopher O'Hanlon, who works at a liquor store in New Jersey, told Business Insider that he and others in the industry have a first-hand look at why it is crucial for their stores to stay open.

"You don't want those people to quit cold turkey," O'Hanlon told Business Insider. "You don't want those people to flood hospitals because, unfortunately, at this stage, we don't have, there's not enough beds for them."

In an opinion piece in the Scientific American, Max Jordan Nguemeni Tiako and Kelsey C. Priest explain that closing liquor stores could be catastrophic for people with alcohol use disorder (AUD). Withdrawal can be dangerous, especially at a time when hospitals and healthcare workers are stretched thin due to COVID-19.

"Because so few people have access to medications for AUD, access to alcohol becomes a matter of life or death," Tiako and Priest write. "If alcohol is unavailable, particularly liquor, people may find alcohol from other unsafe sources, specifically non-beverage alcohol," such as rubbing alcohol, alcohol-based hand sanitizers, or car coolant.

At the same time, O'Hanlon says, he worries that classifying stores at essential might put workers at risk of catching the coronavirus.

"We don't want people in hospital rooms because they're having withdrawal symptoms," O'Hanlon said. "We need to make sure their lives are protected as well. But we also want to protect our lives."

Classifying liquor stores as nonessential can lead to people traveling more, as well as backlash against the government

David Henkes, a global food and beverage consultant for Technomic, told Business Insider that forcing liquor stores and wine shops to shut down can also result in other unintended and potentially dangerous consequences.

Currently, Pennsylvania is the only state that has ordered all liquor stores to shut down as nonessential businesses. Instead of keeping people inside, the decision contributed to shoppers defying shelter-in-place orders and flooding neighboring states to shop for alcohol.

It "becomes almost an impunitive at some point to say, well we're going to exclude beverage alcohol, when it is something that people like and drink and enjoy," Henkes said. "Especially now when they're not driving, they're probably enjoying it a lot more responsibility than they were before."

In general, some experts have pushed back against the classification of some goods as "essential" and others as "nonessential."

Henkes questioned the idea that some foods and beverages would be more "essential" than others. Neil Saunders, the managing director of GlobalData Retail, recently said on Twitter that distinctions could become "very arbitrary," and if the government becomes too restrictive, it could lose the support of the public.

"Generally, the public has been supportive of the [coronavirus] restrictions as they see them as prudent and measured," Saunders wrote. "However, if government becomes too dictatorial and unreasonable in their actions that support could start to wane."

Read Business Insider's full report on the coronavirus and liquor stores here.

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Originally published