By Greg Barnes
Everclear, among the most potent spirits available at every North Carolina ABC store, flew off the shelves in March, as did almost every other type of liquor.
The run on Everclear was different, though. Most people weren’t buying the grain alcohol to drink, store managers across the state say. They were buying it to make hand sanitizer in an effort to kill the coronavirus.
Hand sanitizers must contain at least 60 percent alcohol to effectively kill the virus. Everclear contains more than 70 percent alcohol, while most other spirits have less than 60 percent.
Which brings us to the enormous sales of those other spirits — vodka and gin and rum and bourbon and tequila and, well, you get the idea.
People were buying bottles of booze as if prohibition was lurking just around the corner.
Some actually feared that it was, said Jason Hughes, CEO of Mecklenburg County’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Rumors flew for much of the month that the ABC stores were soon to shut down, leading to a mad dash on alcohol perhaps second only to Charmin.
Gov. Roy Cooper put an end to the rumors — at least for the time being — when he invoked a shelter-in-place order on March 27 that included the ABC stores as essential services. The stores have cut back closing times, but they aren’t shutting down.
And boy, have they been busy.
Charles Hill, general manager of the ABC system for New Hanover County, said retail liquor sales increased a whopping 48 percent from March 1 to March 30, compared with the same month a year earlier.
Cumberland County didn’t see sales spike nearly that high but still reported a 19 percent increase for the entire month. Total retail sales went from $3.57 million in March 2019 to $4.25 million this March, said David Horne, general manager of the county’s ABC system.
Total sales at Greensboro’s ABC stores were up 15 percent, and Forsyth County reported a 17.5 percent increase.
The local ABC systems also supply alcohol to bars and restaurants. Greensboro’s sales to those establishments fell 47 percent, reflecting Cooper’s order on March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day — for bars and restaurants to close to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
So while retail sales of booze continue to boom, the bar and restaurant earnings are now non-existent.
Hughes, the Mecklenburg County ABC manager, said the loss of those sales will hurt, but he still expects to more than make his budget. Bars and restaurants account for about 36 percent of total sales in Mecklenburg, Hughes said.
Hill said that, even with the loss of bar and restaurant sales, New Hanover County was still projecting a 19 percent total sales increase for the month.
In Cumberland County, Horne said liquor sales skyrocketed after Cooper closed the bars and restaurants and then slipped after he ordered everyone to shelter in place.
“Liquor is selling out fast and taking longer to get back in stock and bourbon is hard to keep in stock during normal conditions,” Horne said in an email.
Stores taking precautions
Horne said county ABC stores sold 440 bottles of Everclear in less than two weeks when hand sanitizer was hard to find. Some organizations, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, even posted recipes on their websites for homemade hand sanitizers using Everclear.
Hill said 30 North Carolina distillers have begun making hand sanitizers.
Mecklenburg County has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state — 564 as of Friday afternoon. To guard against the virus, clerks at some of the county’s ABC stores have been filling orders outside to protect the workers and the public alike.
In Cumberland County, Horne said there are no plans to keep people outside, but the stores will temporarily lock their doors if the number of customers inside a store approaches 15. Horne noted that the rule saying no gatherings of over 10 does not apply to essential businesses.
Greensboro has added sneeze guards at the registers, disinfects the stores and trucks regularly and restricts the stores to no more than 10 people inside at a time, ABC system director Vickee Armstrong said in an email.
Dangers of alcohol
Cooper came under criticism in some corners for declaring ABC stores essential. While some people living out the coronavirus in seclusion might consider liquor essential, the state Department of Health and Human Services devotes an entire website to the dangers of alcohol consumption in North Carolina.
The website says North Carolina has a lower prevalence of excessive drinking than the national average but notes that the numbers are trending upward and alcohol remains a major cause of health problems across the state.
“Excessive alcohol consumption is associated with increased risky behavior, violence, suicide, homicide, and vehicular accidents, and is the third leading cause of preventable death in North Carolina,” according to the website.