Coronavirus prompts jump in Utah liquor sales, but stores remain open amid staff shortage and some empty shelves

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The state-run liquor store in Murray has faced some empty shelves and long lines, but staffers continue to restock products on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

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As Utahns hunker down and ride out the coronavirus, they also are stocking up on wine, spirits and beer at a dizzying pace.

State-run liquor stores had higher-than-normal sales Thursday through Saturday after Gov. Gary Herbert limited mass gatherings and encouraged social distancing in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“We sold about $8 million over the weekend,” said Terry Wood, spokesman for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. “That’s significantly more than a normal weekend — more like the days before Thanksgiving or Christmas.”

Of course, he added, St. Patrick’s Day may have affected purchases as well — and the long lines, which also were reminiscent of holidays.

The DABC has had to limit the purchase of Everclear to two bottles per customer. Some Utahns were turning to the potent grain alcohol as a substitute for hard-to-find hand sanitizer amid the pandemic.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The state-run liquor store in Murray has faced some empty shelves and long lines but staff continue to restock product on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Before Utahns hunker down during the coronavirus, they are stocking up on wine, beer and spirits at state-run liquor stores. Last weekend, the state sold $8 million in alcohol — a total that resembles the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Wood said stores are expected to get two shipments of products from the state warehouse to ensure customers can buy what they need. However, like other retail businesses, liquor stores “have had difficulty with staffing." Employees who are sick have been told to stay home. That has left some outlets short-handed and unable to restock shelves quickly.

If an employee were to test positive of coronavirus, Wood said, “we would close that store immediately, the employees would be sent home to quarantine, and a sanitation crew would come in and clean the store.”

While liquor stores are booming, the DABC does expect to see some sort of impact now that Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has ordered all restaurants and bars statewide to halt dine-in service for at least two weeks.

The move came after Salt Lake and Summit counties stopped sit-down dining for 30 days. So those restaurants and bars may not need to replenish their liquor stocks. Many of the businesses still can offer takeout or delivery of food, but curbside delivery of alcohol is prohibited under state law.

The Southeast Utah Health Department also announced that it would prohibit “dine-in” customers at restaurants and bars in Emery, Carbon and Grand counties beginning Tuesday at 10 p.m.

Restaurants and bars also “may not purchase or sell alcohol during the closure,” according to a notice on the DABC website. And, under state law, “any alcohol on the premises must be locked up.”

The Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association has asked the DABC if restaurants and bars can return liquor and wine without facing a restocking fee and to free up cash for the strapped businesses. It was still awaiting an answer Tuesday evening.

The DABC, which usually requires alcohol license holders to notify the agency in writing within 10 days of a closure, is waiving that requirement. However, after the health orders are lifted, businesses must notify the department if they plan to continue operating.

On Monday, Pennsylvania said it was shutting down all nonessential businesses, including its state-run liquor stores. Grocery stores in the Keystone State — which sell wine and beer — remain open.

After Pennsylvania’s move, there was speculation on social media that Utah’s liquor stores would follow. But, as of Tuesday evening, Wood said, it’s business as not-quite usual — with fewer staffers and some empty shelves.