Some Utah liquor store employees, worried about safety, wonder why alcohol sales are deemed ‘essential’

(Matt Canham | Tribune file photo) The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has instituted social distancing plans, limiting the number of customers allowed inside. That's why lines sometimes are seen outside of Utah's liquor and wine stores — even as patrons try to stay 6 feet away from one another.

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It’s contrary to what many people expect from a conservative state like Utah, but right now churches and temples are closed and liquor stores are open.

Customers are grateful — and a little surprised — that state officials, who often support strict alcohol laws in the name of public health, have deemed the stores an “essential service” and have not shut them down as cities and counties urge residents to remain in their homes.

Employees on the front lines, though, question whether Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control are acting in their best interest by allowing alcohol sales to flow during the coronavirus.

“Keeping us open to the public … with a heavy workload, not enough compensation and especially not enough emotional support has been a huge burden on all of us,” a store manager in northern Utah wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. “My employees are all afraid to come to work.”

The manager, who asked not to be identified fearing reprisal, said state-run liquor stores have historically been understaffed and employees underpaid. The pandemic, the manager added, has just made it worse.

“They need to close all stores while they figure out alternative ways of operation such as curbside service or online ordering," the manager said. “They can afford to do the right thing and make us feel that we are worthy … instead of feeling like we are expendable.”

Attorney Tyler Ayres, whose wife works at a liquor store in Salt Lake County, wonders why employees haven’t been issued protective gear or given hazard pay — two things that many grocery stores have gained in recent weeks.

“They are all being exposed unnecessarily,” he said, “and it’s really irresponsible and dangerous.”

Unlike law enforcement officers or medical professionals who understand the hazards of the job going in, Ayres said, liquor store employees didn’t sign up to be that exposed. “The main reason she keeps going to work,” he said of his spouse, “is she doesn’t want to make her co-workers cover for her. She doesn’t want to do that to her friends.”

DABC Deputy Director Cade Meier said it was the governor and health department leaders who determined that liquor stores were an essential food and beverage business, in the same category as grocery stores.

Utah is hardly alone in that decision. Other states, including New York, Maryland and New Jersey, have said liquor stores are essential and should stay open during the COVID-19 crisis.

Besides, Meier added, cutting off liquor could cause secondary problems for the health community.

“There are, unfortunately, people who are addicted to alcohol,” he said, “and if they can’t find the resources they need, there is the potential that they would need to go to the hospital, taxing the already overburdened medical system.”

The agency has taken several steps to ensure employee safety, Meier said. From requiring employees to wear gloves and use cleaning supplies to having hand sanitizer available, "we are communicating with store managers about what they need to do.”

In addition, plexiglass barriers are being installed at all registers; markers are being painted on the floor so customers know how to keep a 6-foot distance, and 30 temporary employees have been hired.

Stores also have limited the number of customers who can go into an outlet, sometimes leading to lines forming outside, where patrons try to keep at least 6 feet away from one another.

One thing that is not yet available for store employees: masks.

“We are subject to the same supply shortages as everyone else,” Meier said, although the state purchasing department is working to find the equipment.

“At this time, we’re not giving out hazard pay,” he said, noting that the Legislature allots the DABC a set budget each year “and that is what we have to work with.”

The agency generates millions for the state. In 2019, sales of beer, wine and spirits at liquor stores pumped $191 million into Utah coffers, but the Legislature decides how it is spent.

Alcohol business soared in the two weeks after Herbert’s “stay safe, stay home” directive. During that time, liquor stores saw a 32% jump in sales.

Over that same stretch, sales at restaurants and bars plummeted by 82%. That’s because all bars in the state have closed temporarily to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and restaurants are prohibited from offering sit-down service — although they can provide takeout and delivery.

State law, however, bans curbside sale of alcohol.

In the wake of the coronavirus, several states have temporarily relaxed laws on alcohol purchases and are allowing curbside pickup and/or delivery of beer, wine and spirits, according to data from the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.

Don’t expect that to happen in Utah, though, said Meier. “Curbside is not an option we’re looking at.”

Online ordering, though, is a possibility.