Georgians stock up on alcohol as residents stay home in face of virus

A customer walks by shelves full of red wine at Beverage City in Fairburn. JASON GETZ FOR THE AJC

A customer walks by shelves full of red wine at Beverage City in Fairburn. JASON GETZ FOR THE AJC

With bars closed and restaurants suspending eat-in dining as Georgia tries to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, many people have rushed to the state’s liquor stores to stock up and have their drinks at home.

Each time Gov. Brian Kemp announced efforts to limit the movements of residents, liquor store sales went up.

Liquor store managers said they first saw a spike in sales around March 16, the day the state Legislature granted Kemp emergency powers.

Randall Heard, the owner of Marietta Wine Market, said overall sales have increased, even though he’s operating on limited store hours.

“I’d say we’re up about 25%,” Heard said. “Thankfully, we’re able to be open. And we have a large customer base already. That keeps (sales) steady.”

Sales at Georgia liquor stores spiked for a second time March 23, the day Kemp ordered bars and nightclubs to close and again April 2, the day after Kemp asked Georgians to shelter at home, according to data from Womply, a California-based technology company.

Liquor store sales were up about 234% on April 2 compared with the same day in 2019.

MORE: A map of coronavirus cases in Georgia

MORE: Real-time stats and the latest news on the coronavirus outbreak

The tech company, which analyzes the credit card transactions of small businesses to identify trends, said alcohol sales have increased nationwide as Americans cope with the coronavirus pandemic. In Georgia, shop owners say sales tend to level off after seeing big spikes in business.

“Straight out of the gate there was an uptick in business,” said Mac Thurston, the owner of Mac’s Beer and Wine/Midtown Liquor. “There was some heavy buying by individuals trying to get the gamut of alcohol to stay in place, but (sales) didn’t last long.”

Grocery stores also saw demand for beer and wine increase, Georgia Food Industry Association President Kathy Kuzava said, averaging about 30% more in sales in the past few weeks compared with last year.

Numbers released Tuesday by the Department of Revenue show a slight uptick in alcohol excise tax collections, but those figures must be submitted to the state by March 15, the day after Kemp announced his intent to declare a health emergency in Georgia but before many shelter-at-home requests had been put in place.

According to state figures, Georgia collected $14.4 million in alcohol taxes between Feb. 15 and March 15, an increase of about 3.3% from March 2019. Those numbers are expected to jump this month.

Ericka McMath said she stopped by East West Package in Austell on Thursday to make sure that, if she needed to stay at home, she had the ingredients she needed for cocktails for herself and family members. A bartender who hasn’t been able to work since March 14, McMath said she thinks having a drink during stressful times helps take the edge off.

“There’s nothing else for a lot of people to do,” McMath said. “Plus, people are depressed a little bit, I think. And sometimes depression and drinking can go hand in hand.”

Officials with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities urged Georgians to monitor their mental health and those around them, especially people who are struggling with addiction.

“During this time, many people are experiencing fear of the unknown. Fear can immobilize,” agency spokeswoman Angelyn McDonald said. “Consider reaching out to a behavioral health professional if you or someone you’re close to is experiencing depression or anxiety, using illegal substances, misusing prescription medications or engaged in other serious unhealthy behaviors.”

Some customers who stopped by East West Package in Austell said they didn’t understand the rush to the liquor stores, comparing it to people clearing grocery store shelves of toilet paper.

“All of it was ridiculous to begin with,” Austell resident Hasha Walters said. “They’re just using this as an excuse to drink.”