LACONIA — Liquor sales jumped 13.51 percent, or $17.3 million, from March 1 to May 13, compared to the same time period last year as people stocked up on, and perhaps consumed more, booze during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to figures provided by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission.
Customers, many with out-of-state license plates, were keeping workers busy Friday at the New Hampshire Liquor and Wine Outlet on Route 104 in New Hampton as traffic streamed into the Lakes Region from Interstate 93 ahead of Memorial Day Weekend.
Assistant Manager Holly Miller said sales have been strong throughout the pandemic, and has been even busier lately.
“It’s a little hectic now as you can tell,” she said, stacking liquor boxes in the front of the store. “We’ve been increasing our numbers daily, with the nice weather and the closer we get to this weekend.”
She said a lot of out-of-staters were coming in off the highway.
“Two-thirds of our sales are to people from out of state,” she said. “Definitely seeing folks who I think have second houses and are coming up for the long weekend.”
On March 16, Gov. Chris Sununu closed restaurant dining rooms, bars and taverns to limit the spread of the disease. So, while business purchases of spirits dramatically dropped, consumer purchases more than made up for the decline.
E.J. Powers, a spokesman for the commission, said a sales promotion in March may have also contributed to the increase.
While Sununu’s order closed non-essential businesses, liquor stores were deemed essential and stayed open. On March 31, he issued an emergency order giving state liquor store employees temporary 10 percent raíses, saying they were essential and might bear a heightened risk of COVID-19 exposure.
He noted that the stores were providing revenue to the state at a critical period and that closing them would encourage people to travel out of state to buy liquor at a time when such travel should be minimized. The wage hike covered store managers, clerks and laborers.
“The Liquor Commission is one of the largest non-tax revenue sources for the general fund,” Powers said. “Last year it was close to $170 million dollars.”
There have been anecdotal reports of more out-of-state residents traveling earlier than normal to their New Hampshire vacation homes, perhaps contributing to the liquor sales.
Commission Chairman Joseph Mollica said more than half of New Hampshire liquor sales come from out-of-state customers. The purchases here are tax-free, leading to lower consumer expenses.
Also, Powers said that the state-owned-and-operated system is able to offer competitive pricing because its size gives it leverage when buying the product.
The state has been aggressive with marketing efforts, promotions, store renovations and constructions of new outlets across the state, including a new location that opened in Tilton on Thursday.
Mollica and Kate Frey, vice president of advocacy for New Futures, collaborated on an op-ed piece noting that April was alcohol awareness month.
“During unsettling times, it is easy for some to turn to alcohol to quell feelings of stress and anxiety,” they wrote. “Caring for ourselves is a complex and personal issue, and the lawful and responsible consumption of alcohol is an important part of this process.
“Each year, an estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes. In 2014 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities accounted for 31% of overall driving fatalities (9,967 deaths). These deaths could have been avoided, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
“Now more than ever it is critical to be aware of the consequences of excessive or binge drinking and to prioritize healthy behaviors.”
“As we find ourselves in a global pandemic, studies show that catastrophic events can trigger increased substance misuse.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, excessive alcohol use can make it harder for a person to resist disease, increasing risks of various illnesses, especially pneumonia.
On the web:
— Alcohol policy resources: www.new-futures.org
— Prevention, treatment and recovery options: doorway.nh.gov or call 211