The lack of clear and effective leadership from our president has left to our states’ governors and local governmental leaders the task of formulating a response to the pandemic. Idaho has lagged behind many other parts of the country, both in terms of the progression of the virus and in our response to it. So I was pleasantly surprised when Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced on March 25 that he was instituting a stay-at-home order, joining many other states in a very necessary step toward slowing the spread.
As is often the case with the best-laid plans, the devil is in the details. The part of the governor’s announcement that particularly caught my attention came during the question and answer session.
He was asked if state liquor stores will be considered essential businesses, and he replied: “I think from a grocery store standpoint they are. I frankly haven’t been worried about the liquor stores very much. But they will do, uh, I think, social distancing, and I’m, I’m not sure.” Embedded in this fairly casual, perhaps even dismissive response, are several very troubling issues.
Before we delve any further into his statement and its ramifications, let me provide full disclosure that I have a direct interest in this, as my wife has worked for the Idaho State Liquor Division for over five years. So let’s start with the first part of his reply. I think he is suggesting that liquor stores are somehow the same as grocery stores, and because grocery stores are clearly essential, liquor stores must be as well. While this seems to be a logical conclusion, since they both sell consumable products, I see a very significant difference. The food found in a grocery store provides nutrition, which is necessary for life. A liquor store contains very little that would provide much nutrition, aside from a few pimento stuffed olives and some maraschino cherries. Although I certainly find a well-made liquor cocktail both delicious and comforting, I know that life is sustainable without it.
There are of course serious alcoholics for whom an interruption in the steady stream of booze can cause serious physiological withdrawal symptoms. So that would make the liquor store more similar to a methadone clinic than a grocery store. And although other forms of alcohol can be found at grocery stores, hard liquor is a different drug. And this fact is certainly on the minds of those in the ISLD. In a conversation I had with Tony Faraca, the chief deputy of the Idaho State Liquor Division, shortly after Gov. Little’s announcement, when I asked if the alcoholic beverages found at the grocery store could serve people’s needs, he suggested that “we all know it’s different.”
If liquor truly is that different, and therefore necessary, I see two significant problems. First, let’s look at the ISLD’s mission statement, from their website, liquor.idaho.gov: “The mission of the Idaho State Liquor Division is to … curtail intemperate use of beverage alcohol.” Selling an addictive drug that knowingly puts customers at risk should the supply be interrupted hardly sounds like a curtailment of intemperance. Second, if we are to accept this almost medical necessity for liquor being readily available, shouldn’t there be some extra support for liquor stores, and their staff, in the midst of this pandemic? When the governor says, “I frankly haven’t been worried about the liquor stores very much,” I have little faith that they will get much of that support.
When Gov. Little says, “they will do, uh, I think, social distancing” he is referring to the policy they have had in place for a week or so that no more than eight people should be in the store at once. However, when you realize how many people move in and out of the building within an hour, how many bottles are touched, how much cash changes hands and how little space there is between people and the cashiers, it should be obvious that there is no way to ensure an environment that doesn’t promote viral spread. And since we have already established that “a drinker must have their drink,” even fairly obvious symptoms of COVID-19 are unlikely to keep a contagious alcoholic at home when the drink runs out. When the governor announced the stay-at-home order, without any prior notification or preparation for the liquor stores, it brought on a perfect storm of panic buying, with a line wrapping around the building. The amount of liquor sold on this otherwise average Wednesday in March easily rivaled other top-selling days like Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving. That leads us to what may be an even bigger reason that the liquor store is essential: revenue.
In 2019, the ISLD distributed over $39 million to Idaho’s cities and counties, supporting everything from first responders to schools. Mr. Faraca made it clear that the ISLD takes its role in the financial support of our services seriously. Or as the ISLD mission states, they seek to “responsibly optimize the net revenues to the citizens of Idaho.”
So why don’t we call a spade a spade. Idaho’s liquor stores are not a grocery store for adults; they are a critical revenue source that makes some of its money from addicts. Are we supposed to accept that, in exchange for this revenue, the health and safety of the workers should be sacrificed?
Dorian Hitchcock of Pocatello taught English composition as a graduate assistant at Idaho State University and currently works in information technology for Bannock County.