Opinion | Liquor stores are not essential

By Maggie Durwald, Senior Staff Columnist

Overall, I’ve been proud to be from New York state during the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve had to deal with more cases and more deaths than any other state in the country, most of which are concentrated in and around New York City. Our governor, Andrew Cuomo, has become a leader not just for my state, but for the rest of the country in handling this virus, prompting some supporters to mention a presidential run or vice presidential selection.

However, not everything New York is doing to combat the virus has been perfect. The state, along with several other states across the country, has a list of services deemed “essential” during this pandemic, including health care operations, infrastructure, manufacturing, retail and “all food and beverage stores.” This means that liquor stores are still open, which is problematic for many reasons. For the health of the state and the rest of the country, these stores should not be deemed essential.

The biggest and most obvious reason liquor stores should be closed is because — rather intuitively — when they’re open, people will go to them. COVID-19 spreads through contact with infected people, through the air and through contact with infected surfaces and objects. In the span of a few months, it has spread around the globe, infecting about 1.5 million people. That’s why people everywhere are urged to stay home whenever possible and not go out unless necessary.

Keeping liquor stores open not only creates a space where people can congregate and spread the virus, but it also generates an excuse to leave the house. We’re all cooped up and dealing with the side effects of social isolation and a major change in lifestyle. Many of us are cut off from our social networks, unemployed and unable to leave the house. For many, this can lead to changes in lifestyle, like eating and sleeping habits. All of these circumstances can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders, as well as inspire these symptoms in people who don’t normally deal with these problems.

The idea of a quick trip to the liquor store is undoubtedly appealing as a way to get out of the house, made especially appealing because the end result is a bottle or two of an alcoholic beverage.

It’s certainly not a foreign concept to college students that many Americans deal with mental health problems by using alcohol. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 15 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder. For millions of people, alcohol is a means of coping with stress and the symptoms of mental health disorders. With the amount of stress this pandemic is putting on people, alcohol consumption is a real concern.

In defense of deeming liquor stores essential, health officials cite concerns of withdrawal symptoms in heavy alcohol users should they be unable to obtain alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms in this population are very serious and could result in death, and therefore pose a serious problem. However, health officials have overlooked the fact that liquor stores are not the only place to get alcohol — grocery stores are still open, as they are also deemed essential, and sell alcohol. Restaurants and bars are also still open for takeout, including alcoholic beverages to go. Closing liquor stores won’t necessarily put people at risk of fatal withdrawal symptoms in danger.

There is a large group of people who could be put in danger with increased access to alcohol, though. According to the World Health Organization, domestic violence is strongly linked to alcohol consumption. In the United States, 55% of victims of intimate partner violence said they thought their partner was drinking before committing physical assault.

Millions of people are stuck at home, unable to go to work or leave the house. Millions of children are stuck at home, unable to go to school. For people who suffer domestic abuse, this means they are trapped with their abusers, who might also be unable to leave the house. For these reasons, instances of domestic violence have increased across the country.

The Fresno County Sheriff’s office in California reported filing 77% more domestic violence reports — both felony and misdemeanor — from March 16 to March 22 than from March 9 to March 15. The former was the first week in which the United States got more serious about its response to the spread of COVID-19, and it was also when people’s fear of the pandemic became more pronounced and widespread. Police in Seattle saw a 22% increase in domestic violence calls in the first two weeks of March compared with the number of calls received this time last year.

Closing liquor stores wouldn’t completely remove alcohol from the hands of abusers, since alcoholic beverages are still sold at restaurants and grocery stores. But doing so would certainly decrease the access abusers have to alcohol. The WHO considers domestic violence to be a “global health problem of epidemic proportions.” New York state can do its part in attempting to stop this epidemic by at the very least closing liquor stores.

We’re dealing with a lot right now in New York. Adding alcohol to the mix simply isn’t essential at the moment — a moment when travel activity needs to be limited to essential locations only. Removing liquor stores from the list of essential services would show residents that they need to stay home, that alcohol is not a necessity or a valid coping mechanism and that the state sees and hears victims of domestic abuse.