Alcohol in Montgomery County is disappearing from liquor store shelves as customers afraid it might be tough to get later buy it up now, said the director of the county’s Alcohol Beverage Services department.
On Tuesday, the department, known as ABS, shipped 24,000 cases of alcohol from its Gaithersburg warehouse to its customers, not including on-premise establishments such as restaurants, ABS Director Robert Dorfman said.
Bars and restaurants closed at 5 p.m. Monday across Maryland under Gov. Larry Hogan’s emergency order, which is part of the state’s ongoing effort to prevent large gatherings and limit the spread of the coronavirus disease. Takeout and delivery orders are still allowed.
Dorfman said the number of cases, 24,000, is significant, because it exceeds ABS’s typical Tuesday shipment numbers for when restaurants and other on-premise establishments are in business.
“We did 24,000 cases that we shipped out yesterday that did not include the on-premise customers, because restaurants were not allowed to have people eating inside. So we did 24,000 cases yesterday to just off-premise. On a normal Tuesday, we would have done 20,000 cases including off-premise and on premise,” he said.
Dorfman said off-premise establishments, or retail stores, make up about 300 of the county’s 1,100 total businesses that ABS has licensed to sell alcohol. But those 300 stores, he said, have been popular the last couple of weeks since the number of coronavirus cases has increased.
Communities across the United States, Dorfman said, are rushing to stores to stockpile alcohol out of fear that the supply will run out, or that the stores will close. Pennsylvania, he noted, closed all 600 of its state-owned liquor stores this week.
“People are trying to stock up on alcoholic beverages given what they’re foreseeing for the future to be in terms of their shopping ability. And that’s why our sales are ridiculously high right now,” Dorfman said.
Dorfman said that in addition to the staggering Tuesday sales numbers, ABS, during the week of March 9, shipped 13,000 more cases of alcohol than the previous week. And this week’s shipment total has topped last week’s by 7,000 cases, he said.
Maryland had 85 reported cases of coronavirus, including 31 in Montgomery County, through Wednesday morning, according to the state’s Department of Health. The first three cases in the state were reported in Montgomery County on March 5. All three of those patients have recovered. The state’s first coronavirus death was reported Wednesday night.
Senior Marketing Officer Melissa Davis said that since March 10, ABS’ 25 retail stores have seen a 46% increase in sales dollars. The increase, she said, is seen in all three types of alcohol the stores sell — beer, wine and spirits.
Dorfman said he expects that a similar trend is true at independently owned liquor stores.
“People are shopping, whether it’s our 25 stores or the independent beer and wine stores,” he said. “In either case, the volume is huge. So people are obviously stocking up, believing at some point in time they may not be able to get alcoholic beverages.”
At Capital Beer & Wine on Norfolk Avenue in Bethesda, Assistant Manager Angie Stewart said Wednesday that instead of 1 bottle of wine, customers have been buying three or four. She noticed the trend starting last week.
Stewart said a customer’s goal is to practice social distancing by reducing the number of trips to the store for beer and wine.
“It’s not that they necessarily are drinking more, but they are purchasing in larger quantity, so that they don’t have to go back outside again,” she said.
Capital Beer & Wine has stayed open, but Stewart said more people are taking advantage of the store’s online ordering system, which has a delivery option and a curbside pickup option at the store.
“Before, somebody did something online once a month or something. We’re doing maybe three, four, five [online orders] a day. So that’s the difference. They don’t want to come into the store, be around a lot of people and be handling bottles,” she said.
Stewart said she has seen similar spikes in sales before, but it is usually before a weather event such as a snowstorm.
The coronavirus epidemic, she said, has created an urgent need in the minds of customers for certain products, including alcohol.
“It’s just like an emergency situation with people buying toilet paper,” she said.
Paul Mugge, who owns Tiger Beer Wine & Deli on North Washington Street in Rockville, said his business has been up about 40% in the past week.
He attributes the rise in sales to a panic by many customers who felt the need to stock up on alcohol following the closure of schools starting Monday, and later the governor’s announcement that bars and restaurants would close.
“I feel bad for all the restaurants and the servers and everything. … Monday was my busiest day. I think there was a panic when they heard the bars and restaurants were gonna close. I think people mistakenly thought everything was gonna close,” he said.
Mugge also said he is seeing more customers buy in bulk.
“It’s kind of like before we have a blizzard or something. … Every day, there’s so much uncertainty that a lot of my customers who would buy one six-pack or one bottle of wine are buying two or three six-packs or bottles of wine,” he said.
But unlike a blizzard, Mugge said, the coronavirus outbreak has carried with it uncertainty about how long people will be stuck at home.
“That’s why people are buying more. Nobody really knows. That’s why people are stocking up a lot. Plus, people are getting together with their neighbors [for a drink],” he said.
The recent boom in sales, Dorfman said, is akin to only the Christmas holiday season.
“This would be something that wouldn’t be totally unexpected going into the holidays. It is unprecedented for this time of year,” he said.
Dorfman said ABS has tried to accommodate all of its customers during the coronavirus outbreak. It has kept its stores open, despite having reduced hours.
On Wednesday, the county liquor board approved a temporary change that allows on-premise establishments to sell beer and wine for takeout and delivery — which are still legal under Hogan’s order.
Dorfman said that as a former restaurant owner, he understands the difficulties restaurant owners are going through currently.
“To the extent that we can help people get through their day, it’s that many days that we can pay their server, for putting together meals to go, to packaging product to be delivered,” he said.
“It’s that many days that they can continue to pay the rent. So, we’re just trying to do everything we can conceivably know how to do to support them.”
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org