While fewer bottles of alcohol were sold in March, shoppers at Utah’s state-run liquor stores helped temper potential revenue losses by spending more per container than usual.

Bottle sales for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control were down by nearly 480,000 from March 2019, DABC finance director Man Diep told the state liquor commission Tuesday. Year-to-date bottle sales dropped by more than 1.1 million or 2.95%.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The reason, of course, is that bars and restaurants across the state have been closed to dine-in service since mid-March to encourage social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. State law forbids the sale of alcohol via pickup or delivery — although customers can go inside some bars, breweries and distilleries to make a purchase.

Adding to the misery, liquor stores along the Wasatch Front closed for the day March 18 due to a magnitude 5.7 earthquake.

Overall, though, retail alcohol sales last month totaled almost $43 million, up from $39 million recorded in March 2019.

Since the COVID-19 restrictions, foot traffic at liquor stores has jumped about 7%, officials said. And Utahns who did make purchases spent more than normal as they followed stay-at-home directives from Gov. Gary Herbert and area health departments.

The average price per bottle last month was $11.53, up from $9.28 for the same month last year. Year to date, the average bottle price is up more than 8%.

Still, DABC Executive Director Sal Petilos is preparing for the worst when April’s numbers are tallied.

“In April, we will see the full impact of the closures that have occurred with licensees,” he said, noting that bars and restaurants that serve alcohol make up about 20% of state alcohol revenues.

“When the data is finalized,” he warned the commission, “we will see a reduction.”

In the past week, there has been more bad news for the department. It had to shut down two liquor stores after employees tested positive for COVID-19. The Moab outlet, which closed last Thursday, has been sanitized and will reopen Wednesday. The Murray store shuttered Monday. Officials have not said when it might reopen.

The DABC had already seen alcohol sales slow after a new state law kicked in Nov. 1 that allows beer up to 5% alcohol by volume to be sold in grocery and convenience stores. About 100 beers that were previously sold in liquor stores —and were top sellers in the state — moved into the retail outlets.

The effect on DABC profits was immediate. In December, beer sales at state-run stores fell 43% from the same time the previous year. Those losses have been tempered by higher sales of wine and spirits, which for several years have grown by almost 6% annually.