The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As pandemic and stay-at-home orders spread, so does alcohol consumption

A man stocks up on beer and liquor in Denver last month. Operators at liquor stores, which in most states are allowed to continue operating, say they have noticed an uptick in sales. (Michael Ciaglo/AFP/Getty Images)

Ward Greenberg, an American lawyer working in Germany, said he was going to give up drinking temporarily for Lent, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, he decided it would be sufficient to stay dry just on weeknights. But he soon decided five nights without a drink was too many.

“Now it’s no drinking midweek — so Wednesdays are dry,” he said.

Kelly James, a content specialist for a digital marketing company outside of Chicago, said the stress of “home schooling” her 10-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son has her imbibing a couple of glasses of wine a night. In the past, she rarely drank on weeknights. She also said she’s an extrovert who thrives on connection, and the lack of human contact beyond her children has been a big challenge for her.

“I am walking, staying connected with friends and practicing gratitude, but for now the wine is a crutch to get me through a challenging situation,” she said. “Is it ideal? Nope. But right now it’s one of a handful of tools in my tool kit — along with healthier ones I mentioned — that I’m going to use.”

The extreme worry and isolation sparked by the coronavirus pandemic is likely leading many people to increase their consumption of beer, wine and hard alcohol, experts say. A recent survey by the market research firm Nielsen reported off-premises sales of alcoholic beverages across the United States have grown 55 percent in the week ending March 21, said John Bodnovich, executive director of the American Beverage Licensees, which represents about 13,000 bars, taverns, restaurants and package stores. (Some of that growth may be due to bars and restaurants now being closed in many places.)

Stress is a common trigger for drinking, said C. Vaile Wright, director of clinical research and quality in the Practice Directorate for the American Psychological Association, and this pandemic has led to an unprecedented period of stress.

“We are seeing more people using alcohol as a way to cope with the anxiety and stress and uncertainty of this situation,” she said. “I think a lot of people use it to numb out. While that’s certainly a very human response to what’s going on right now, it’s generally not the best way of managing stress.”

For one thing, alcohol is a depressant, both physically and mentally, so those already prone to depression or sadness may find those feelings exacerbated by drinking, she said.

And it can actually increase one’s anxiety, because it interferes with the ability to get quality sleep at night, Wright said. Without quality sleep, it can be hard to manage stress the next day.

Anxiety is definitely a factor for Noelle Farra, a human resources officer in New Jersey. Since the pandemic has unfolded in her hard-hit state, her weekend cocktail has morphed into a nightly cocktail, sometimes two.

“The real fear of the virus, as well as the manufactured fear, from the media, has made me more anxious,” she said. “Getting to the end of the day without paralyzing anxiety is almost a goal. I reward myself with a glass of wine or light beer.”

During a recent weekend, Farra said, she actually worried she and her husband might run out of wine. That’s not a thought that would’ve cropped up in the past.

Maria Sommerville, a school administrator in Pittsford, N.Y., says she used to drink about a glass or two of wine or bourbon a month. Now, she has a glass of wine or a cocktail every night.

“There is so much uncertainty — illness, job insecurity, social isolation,” she said. The anxiety ratcheted up a recent weekend when she found out her hometown of Albany, Ga., had one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the world.

“When I think of people from there, I think of gregarious, fun-loving folks,” she said. Now, she wonders how many of the deceased she’ll know.

For some, drinking is just something to do when stuck at home with little to do.

Before the pandemic, Bart Calendar, an American freelance writer living in Montpellier, France, which is under lockdown, said he would go out most nights with friends and have a few beers and maybe a shot of hard alcohol. Now, he drinks vodka and tonics most afternoons — and finds he’s going through a bottle of vodka every several days.

“It’s super boring just sitting at home all day long,” he said. A bottle of spirits also lasts longer than a six-pack of beer, so he doesn’t have to go to the store as often.

For those who work in health care, the need to relax at the end of a stress-packed day can make a drink feel almost essential.

“I usually drink one to two glasses of wine a week, on the weekend. Now, I drink one to two glasses nightly, after work,” said a New Jersey doctor who asked that her name not be used for privacy reasons. “It helps to deal with the stress and anxiety of uncertainty.”

She is doing a combination of telehealth and outpatient medicine, and she is not in the frenzy of hospital coronavirus treatment. But given that New Jersey is one of the pandemic’s hottest hot spots, she fears she will soon be recruited to the “front lines,” which could mean having to quarantine herself from her husband and two children to protect them.

Another doctor who tends patients in the New York-area hospitals and also asked not to be named for privacy reasons, said healthy colleagues have gotten very sick, some requiring ICU and ventilation support. It’s been upsetting and unnerving.

Faced with the potential prospect that she might get the disease at work, she said she spent the past week compiling passwords for accounts, reviewing her life insurance policy and updating her will.

“These are things we all do ‘just in case.’ But the scary part for some physicians and nurses is that ‘just in case’ may not be so far down the road,” she said. While she would have an occasional glass of wine in the past, she now finds she has a drink every night to decompress

“Tonight, I hugged the kids good night and told them I loved them . . . not knowing if I will have to be quarantined when I return from my next 24-hour call tomorrow, or worse, get really sick sometime in the not so distant future,” she said.

Liquor stores, meanwhile, which in most states are allowed to continue operating despite restrictions on many other stores, have noticed an uptick in sales. In the San Francisco Bay area, for instance, which had one of the earliest orders to stay at home, residents reportedly drank 42 percent more than usual during the first week of the rule.

“People are certainly purchasing more alcohol, and the numbers have born that out,” said Bodnovich, adding that the Nielsen survey found the biggest uptick was in tequila, gin and premixed cocktails, followed by wine and then beer.

People want to remain social, even if it is via Zoom, FaceTime or Skype, and having a virtual drink together is part of that, he said. “I think there’s also been a general pantry-stocking across consumer package goods, whether it’s alcohol, toilet paper, or ground beef,” Bodnovich said.

Thomas Murray, who co-owns Bottle Shop, a liquor store in Spring Lake, N.J., said there was a spike in business a few weeks ago amid reports that the state was going to shutter liquor stores, along with other retail stores, to combat the spread of the virus. When Gov. Phil Murphy (D) instead deemed liquor stores “essential businesses,” Murray said he thought his sales would slow — they haven’t.

“Our traffic just spiked big time going into that week, right before the governor declared us as essential, and it hasn’t tapered off to the degree I thought it would,” he said. “When I look at last March to this March, consumption is up considerably.”

Helen Wolkowicz, a writer in Montreal, said she was never a big drinker, preferring to get her calories from food. But in the past several weeks, she’s been trying out new cocktails with her 20-year-old daughter, who lives with her.

“Prior to the pandemic, I’d have a drink at home maybe once or twice a week. Last week, I realized I had one every . . . day,” she said. “I think the motivation is subtle and complex: trying to feel ‘normal’ while indulging in what pleasures are available.”

But now she feels like her body expects it, she said.

“I don’t like that feeling,” she said.

That feeling may not be her imagination. Wright said it doesn’t take long for the body to become addicted to drinking alcohol, even in a short period of time.

“It’s a habit, like anything else. And it’s an incredibly addictive substance,” she said.

For that reason, she recommended being mindful of your alcohol use. Pay attention to when you’re drinking, why you’re drinking and how much you’re drinking. When one or two drinks in the evening turns into drinking during the workday, or having so many drinks at night that you’re not well rested, you will wake up with a hangover and you become emotionally dysregulated.

“Because that’s what alcohol can do,” she said. “It can make you more depressed, tearful, hopeless, and anxious.”

She suggested balancing the alcohol intake with more effective coping skills — physical tasks such as exercise, baking or dancing, or cognitive tasks, such as puzzles, crosswords or reading, or sensory tasks, such as spalike baths, with candles and lotions.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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