The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Maryland’s temporary liquor laws helped save businesses, and that’s good for all

A to-go order is packaged at Chennai Hoppers in Gaithersburg on May 22. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post). (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)
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Len N. Foxwell, a strategic consultant, was chief of staff to the Maryland comptroller from 2008 to 2020.

In 2020, Maryland was among several states to relax their alcohol distribution and retail laws because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Having worked with the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to craft the executive orders that suspended prohibitions on the carryout and direct delivery of alcohol from restaurants and the arcane and inexplicable limits on sales at craft breweries, I believe the continuation of these temporary policies would be good for the state.

Untested theories and personal anecdotes from opponents can insinuate a causal relationship. To be sure, some will attempt to make those connections in the coming months in an effort to curtail or eliminate these vital relief measures. However, there is no statistical evidence whatsoever to confirm that alcohol consumption and binge drinking increased as a direct result of the steps that were taken to save local businesses during an unprecedented crisis.

To begin with, it would be impossible to draw such conclusions from Maryland, given that a legislative report on this subject will not even be released until December. With no comparative analysis of gross sales, tax receipts and other consumption metrics, it is impossible to determine how broadly and to what degree heavy drinking increased over the course of the pandemic.

It would be equally impossible, without consumer research, to attribute any upticks in consumption to specific trade policies. To be sure, Maryland experienced no significant or long-term increase in wine consumption as a result of its Winery Modernization Act of 2010, which established the legal framework by which local wineries may host tastings, serve food, host special events or sell their wine at farmers markets. Nor, for that matter, did we see a surge after the passage of the direct wine shipment law that was adopted the following year.

It is more plausible to assume that the conditions imposed by the global pandemic — from social isolation and extended confinement to extreme financial uncertainty, illness and death — encouraged a segment of the population to relieve stress and “self-medicate” through the use of alcohol.

Given that package stores across the state were allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic, logic would suggest that these consumers would have done so — whether they purchased their favorite labels over the counter or had mixed drinks delivered to their front door along with an order of enchiladas and chips. In the latter scenario, at least, the customers would be consuming alcohol within the relative safety of their homes and the effects of the drinks would be offset to a degree by the consumption of the food.

In other words, we really do not know whether these emergency measures have contributed to an increase in excessive consumption and adverse health and safety consequences. We do know, beyond a doubt, that the emergency measures saved locally owned businesses that had lost 80 to 90 percent of their average daily receipts.

Thanks to a perfect storm of indoor dining bans, consumer trepidation, labor shortages and severe supply chain disruptions, about 80,000 restaurants have temporarily or permanently closed since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Each of these restaurants represented the hub of an economic ecosystem that included workers, equipment suppliers (from stemware to linens and lighting), service vendors, food distributors, truck drivers and local farmers. Every time a restaurant closes its doors, jobs are lost, local economies suffer a blow and communities sense a loss that is nearly impossible to recapture.

Given the circumstances and the stakes, Hogan and a bipartisan coalition of state officials were correct to take timely action on behalf of a sector that remains anchored by local and independent businesses. For every corporate chain restaurant, there are priceless local treasures such as Franklins in Hyattsville, Snappers Waterfront Cafe in Cambridge, the Olde Town Pub in Leonardtown or Denizens Brewing in Silver Spring. Now, as we endure another coronavirus winter that will impose even greater obstacles to survival on these businesses, our leaders in Maryland must act decisively to keep these sensible relief measures in place for the foreseeable future.

What we do not need are opinions, in the absence of facts, that point a finger at policies that kept the lights on for local businesses throughout Maryland — and in so doing, prevented the pandemic from exacting a far greater toll on our families.