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Why are liquor stores considered essential during Maryland’s coronavirus shutdown?

"We are not ordering a shelter in place directive," said Hogan. "Stay at home unless you have essential reasons to leave."

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan took the extraordinary step Monday of closing the state’s nonessential businesses in an attempt to the slow the spread of the coronavirus. The order, notably, does not apply to liquor stores, wineries, distilleries and other providers of alcoholic beverages.

The decision to maintain the sale of liquor and alcohol could perhaps provide some respite to Maryland’s economy, which has stuttered under a series of state-level measures designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. While restaurants and bars can offer delivery and carry-out service, many employers have reduced staff while others have closed to safeguard their patrons and employees.

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The governor’s latest executive order went into effect at 5 p.m. Monday.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot said in a statement the decision to keep beverage retailers open was economically driven and in step with the state’s decision to allow restaurants to remain open for delivery and carry-out.

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Franchot is both the state’s chief tax collector and the regulator of the alcohol, tobacco and fuel industries in Maryland. He considers himself a champion of the state’s growing craft beer industry.

“Maryland’s craft beer, wine and spirits industries are three of our state’s most important manufacturing sectors, responsible for sustaining tens of thousands of jobs and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in employee wages, economic investment and tax revenues, which we need for important priorities,” Franchot said in the statement.

When a brewery, winery or restaurant closes, the economic ecosystem of workers, suppliers and vendors collapses, he said.

“It is particularly imperative that we do everything possible to keep all of these local, community-based businesses open during this time of devastation," Franchot said. “Money generated locally stays local.”

But not every local government considers liquor “essential.”

Some states, like Pennsylvania, have closed liquor stores and other distributors of alcohol altogether in an attempt to further slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the contagious upper respiratory disease that has sickened more than 415,000 around the world and killed some 18,000 worldwide.

In Denver, the mayor ordered liquor stores closed — only to reverse the decision later the same day after shoppers swarmed to stock up on beverages.

Hogan’s order excluded essential or critical industries as defined by the federal government. The federal government’s definition of “essential” workers was published last week by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

The agency’s guidance on the food and agriculture sectors was broad and designated workers employed by groceries, pharmacies and other retail that sells food and beverage products as “essential.” Agency officials called the list advisory and said it should not be considered a federal directive or standard.

The qualification of liquor and alcohol services as essential might serve to prevent those with substance abuse disorders from seeking urgent medical attention, said Zach Snitzer, co-founder of Maryland Addiction Recovery Center. While the state may have been largely motivated by economic gains, the designation could prevent additional fatalities or emergency room visits, he said.

“There was a lot of concern throughout the country, and also locally, that if they did not keep liquor stores open, what would be the fallout from that,” Snitzer said. “Some people will absolutely require medical attention and we’re trying not to overwhelm an overwhelmed healthcare system.”

For those continuing to serve alcohol, the governor’s essential service qualification poses something of a catch-22, said Peter Chung, manager of Smitty’s Liquor Co. in Federal Hill. The neighborhood liquor store remains open and continues to experience heavy foot traffic, Chung said.

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“People are buying more than they usually would,” he said. “We’re helping people get on with this and give them an outlet, but, at the same time while everyone else is home, we’re still working.”

Even though alcohol remains available, Chung said people should take seriously the social distancing element of the coronavirus outbreak.

Federal Hill, home to many young adults, saw scores of patrons flood the streets during the weekend leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, which drew criticism from Hogan and other state officials who then ramped up social distancing enforcement measures.

A line of people waits to enter The Charles. Despite residents being urged to practice social distancing to limit the possible spread of coronavirus, people still arrived in large groups to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Federal Hill.
A line of people waits to enter The Charles. Despite residents being urged to practice social distancing to limit the possible spread of coronavirus, people still arrived in large groups to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Federal Hill.(Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Elsewhere in Baltimore, cocktail rooms, distilleries and breweries offering carry-out service to customers have had to adjust to a new workflow.

Ernst Valery, co-owner of the Upper Fells Point’s new Ministry of Brewing, said it took the brewery a couple of days to sort out its new process, in which customers order beer online for curbside pick-up as opposed to in the old converted church.

Valery said the outbreak has highlighted fault lines within society between those in the hospitality and service industries and those who do not earn their wage from tips.

“Self-quarantining is only an option for a small segment of our population,” Valery said. “It’s certainly a challenge for us, and there are a lot of industries out there where people can’t work from home.”

Valery said the neighborhood brewery, which has been accustomed to large crowds and long lines since it opened about two months ago, has done its best to alter its business model to prevent patrons from congregating outside.

While he thinks service workers should receive more financial help than what has been proposed by state and federal officials, he said he understands the thought process behind maintaining the availability of liquor, wine and beer during a crisis.

“In times of pressure and and in times of fear, it helps take the edge off to be able to have a drink,” he said.

Meanwhile, others have shut their doors indefinitely, urging their employees to apply for unemployment benefits to compensate for the lost earnings.

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Ron Furman, owner of Max’s Taphouse in Fells Point, was one of eight Fells Point bar and restaurant owners to preemptively close up shop earlier this month after Hogan signaled that the state would start enforcing bans on large gatherings.

He said that while he personally felt uncomfortable continuing to run the neighborhood tavern during the coronavirus outbreak, he supports the idea of alcohol-related businesses qualifying as essential.

“Remember Prohibition? People will find a way to get it regardless,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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