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Idaho liquor stores are ‘essential’ right now. Here’s why.

Coronavirus

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After social distancing and restrictions to public eateries and bars, Downtown Boise slows down during the noon hour Tuesday, March 24, 2020 in the shadow of coronavirus worries. | BY DARIN OSWALD

Editor’s Note: The following is an opinion column from the Idaho Statesman.

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Moments after Gov. Brad Little began explaining an order that will keep Idahoans mostly at home for 21 days, the stampede of uninformed booze hounds began.

Lines materialized outside liquor stores statewide. Panic-buying customers stocked up on half-gallons of vodka, rum and tequila.

It was Wednesday afternoon.

“We sure weren’t expecting that yesterday,” admits Tony Faraca, chief deputy director and chief financial officer for the Idaho State Liquor Division. “For those four hours, it might have been the busiest four hours in our history.”

Brian Dyas, a longtime clerk at 4248 W. Chinden Blvd. in Garden City, still sounds shell-shocked.

“It was ****in’ nuts,” he says. “It was crazier than any holiday. It’s the busiest day I’ve ever worked in that store. People were freakin’ out because they thought liquor stores were closing. The phone was ringing off the hook.”

False alarm. Like supermarkets and other select businesses, liquor stores were deemed “essential” by Little’s order. They’re open.

Meanwhile, I’m allowed to sip an old-fashioned in my home workspace while I explain why liquor stores definitely do deserve to keep operating. (Just kidding, boss!)

Jack Daniel’s whiskey is one of the most popular products at Idaho liquor stores. | Toby Talbot, AP

Calling liquor stores “essential businesses” during the coronavirus pandemic might seem debatable.

It’s not — for multiple reasons.

The onslaught of Idahoans lining up was proof enough. (Nothing personal, but it might be time for some of y’all to lay off the sauce?)

Imagine if the whiskey spigot really did get turned off in Boise?

“I do think there is, without question, a potential social unrest and safety issue …,” Faraca says.

The West got a taste earlier this week. Denver’s mayor issued a stay-at-home order, but he didn’t categorize liquor stores or recreational pot shops as essential businesses. Crowds bombarded stores for last-minute shopping, ignoring social-distancing rules.

Three hours later, Denver’s mayor flip-flopped.

I wouldn’t expect Little to make a stay-at-home exception for Idahoans planning to cruise to Ontario, Oregon, for drive-thru weed. (It’s illegal to transport marijuana back to Idaho, but it’s no secret that Boise fuels the Ontario dispensary economy.)

Before you blunt-tokers complain, though, hear me out. The real argument for Idaho liquor stores getting categorized as essential involves two words: state revenue.

“We’re essentially a nonprofit,” Faraca says, “and all of our revenues go back to the cities, counties and state governments. Cities use it to pay for the police, firemen, first responders, general government agencies. … Our money goes back to the government to provide a lot of these essential services that are in great need right now.”

Other arguments for liquor stores remaining open are practical but less savory.

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Forcing a physically dependent drinker to stop imbibing might cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, according to Dr. Andrew Lim, medical director of Bristol Hospital’s Emergency Department. He told NBC Connecticut this week that be believed their governor’s thinking was that shuttering liquor stores might “create an unnecessary problem and really cut off a needed resource.”

The last thing Idaho or any state needs right now is for hospital beds to be filled with citizens shaking with DTs.

Vodka is Idaho’s top-selling liquor category, according to the Idaho State Liquor Division. | Michael Deeds, MDEEDS@IDAHOSTATESMAN.COM

Taking away liquor can lead to illegal activities, Faraca says. “Bootlegging is going to occur if Idaho all of a sudden is shut off. People are going to bring it here to sell, and people here are going to leave the state to bring it back.”

Daniel Love, the founder of Mother Earth Brew Co. in Nampa, points us to history. “Even during Prohibition, they still found ways to buy beer,” Love says. “Hell, the military bought beer illegally for soldiers during Prohibition.”

Liquor stores don’t sell beer in Idaho. But it’s worth mentioning that breweries are allowed to make beer and sell it to-go under Little’s order. Breweries aren’t explicitly defined as essential businesses, but “beer is considered food, and food is an essential item,” Love says.

“It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why beer would be considered essential,” Love continues, “other than in times like these where they’re very tough and people struggle, they look for an outlet. And beer is an outlet. And in a country that is built on freedom, it’s nice to have outlets when things get tough.”

Day-to-day life in this pandemic is tough enough. Dyas, 64, says many employees at state liquor stores are over 60, putting them in a high-risk group for COVID-19 complications.

Like other businesses, liquor stores are sanitizing a lot, he says. Only 10 people are allowed inside at a time — usually two clerks and eight customers.

Faraca says that state liquor store employees have been told that they don’t have to come to work. Several have taken the offer. As a result, three Treasure Valley stores are closed for now: 808 S. Vista Ave. and 1419 W. Grove St. in Boise, and 195 Caldwell Blvd. in Nampa.

Dyas is one of the employees taking time off. He’s got three kids at home to take care of, he says.

In the meantime, Idaho’s state liquor stores will keep being essential.

“Alcohol is important to people,” Dyas says, “obviously.”

This article was first published by the Idaho Statesman. It is used here with permission.

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