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Alcohol sales up, makers hope to make relaxed rules permanent

Sales of alcohol during the coronavirus pandemic have soared, and the U.S. beer, wine and alcohol industries hope to make some of the relaxed rules on purchasing permanent. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Sales of alcohol during the coronavirus pandemic have soared, and the U.S. beer, wine and alcohol industries hope to make some of the relaxed rules on purchasing permanent. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

April 1 (UPI) -- U.S. sales of beer, wine and alcohol have increased during the coronavirus pandemic, as states relax laws on purchases to help ailing industries.

Total alcohol retail sales, which do not include alcoholic drinks sold in bars and restaurants, increased significantly in the week ending March 20, over the same period in 2019. Research firm Nielsen Corp. reported a 27.6 percent increase in wine sales, a 14 percent increase in sales of beer and related products and a 26.4 percent increase in sales of spirits. The Nielsen data suggest that consumers are stockpiling their purchases, with 3-liter boxed wine sales up 53 percent from one year ago, wines sold in cans up 95 percent and beer sold in 24-packs up by 24 percent. Online sales of beer, wine and alcohol for home delivery have also increased.

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While many businesses are shut down amid the pandemic by state government orders, many states regard liquor stores as essential businesses. New York, California, Vermont, Colorado and Kentucky relaxed rules permitting beer, wine and alcohol sales to accompany restaurant meals for takeout and delivery. While the rule changes are temporary, the U.S. alcohol industry sees them as fulfillment of decades-long push to ease sales restrictions and unify laws across state lines.

"It's definitely a step forward towards liberalizing a lot of these laws," Jarrett Dieterle of nonpartisan public policy research group R Street said. "The more interconnected we get and our marketplaces get, the more people will want their state to be part of that alcohol market."

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Many breweries have temporarily closed, as sales in bars and stadiums have decreased, but the relaxation of state rules has provided some relief, to the makers as well as the patrons, Jim McGreevy of the industry group The Beer Institute said.

"We have seen regulators at both the federal and state level be very open to helping brewers stay in businesses," McGreevy said. "I think beer is uniquely posed to address the consumer need at this point in time of uncertainty about a public health crisis, uncertainty about an economic crisis. Beer in particular brings a little joy and a little normalcy to an otherwise fraught situation for people."

Pennsylvania closed its liquor outlets, and some traffic across state lines to purchase alcohol has been noted, Chris Swonger of the lobbying group Distilled Spirits Council said.

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"We've seen a lot of instances where consumers are crossing state lines out of Pennsylvania to New Jersey and other states," Swonger said.

While the sale of some products, notably toilet paper, has been restricted by retailers, no state has put a limit on the amount of alcohol a customer can purchase. The alcohol industry is monitoring the actions of states, retailers, restaurants and customers during the pandemic for future lobbying efforts to keep some relaxed rules permanent.

"How do we go back from this?" said Michael Kaiser of lobbying group The Wine Council. "What if Maryland wineries, as an example, decide this is a very good part of our business model?"

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