The shelter-in-place orders that went into effect in Austin early Wednesday to slow down the spread of the coronavirus require most businesses to close their physical locations through April 13, with some exceptions for those considered essential services.
That list includes pharmacies, grocery stores, gas stations — and liquor stores?
“I was wondering the same thing,” said Rick Garza, who was picking up white wine and cognac Wednesday at Spec’s in Sunset Valley. “Maybe because everyone is bored at home and they want to drink.”
City of Austin spokesman David Green said access to other products besides spirits played into the decision to keep liquor stores open.
“Liquor stores often also carry foodstuffs and other ancillary conveniences so we left them open to continue to allow those items to be available,” he said.
Spec’s has a deli with meats and cheese as well as aisles with groceries like soup, crackers and pasta. Water and non-alcoholic beverages are also available.
Restaurants that remain open — which Gov. Greg Abbott temporarily has allowed to sell alcohol with takeout orders to help their bottom lines during the outbreak — also depend on liquor stores for their supply of booze.
David Jabour, co-owner of the Austin-based Twin Liquors, said it’s important for people to have access to their favorite drinks in this difficult time.
“To deprive a resident of our community of beverage alcohol would be to deprive them of one of the few things they can continue to enjoy in the comforts of their own homes as we have shelter-in-place orders throughout our communities,” he said.
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The orders from Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt are similar to those in Dallas County, which was the first in Texas to call for a shelter in place. Dallas also is letting liquor stores remain open.
A staff member for Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said the county determined Texans who enjoy spirits would be in a tough spot if liquor stores were closed because supermarkets in the state can sell only beer and wine. In addition, the staff member told the American-Statesman, there were concerns that people with alcohol dependency would have medical emergencies if they were cut off from liquor and end up occupying hospital space that could be used for COVID-19 patients.
Liquor stores are not specifically listed as essential services in another shelter-in-place order that went into effect in Williamson County on Wednesday, but could be considered businesses that sell groceries and allowed to remain open. County officials did not respond to an email asking whether liquor stores will stay open.
The shelter-in-place orders in the Austin area leave wiggle room for many other businesses to be deemed essential and stay open.
A Mattress Firm store located near the Spec’s was open Wednesday under an exemption for businesses that maintain the “essential operation of residences.” A Best Buy store nearby was reduced to curbside pickup, but was open.
Other businesses have had to close their doors because of local and state orders, including hair salons, gyms and hemp stores. Some people have been turning to hemp stores that sell cannabidiol products saying they help calm their nerves during a time of heightened anxiety.
“I’m curious why Austin singled out CBD retailers as non-essential when Dallas and other cities have not used the same wording,” said Leah Lakstins, of Austin Hemp Tours. “These products will remain available at big box stores where vulnerable individuals are at higher risk than at the boutique shops they are currently visiting. Most shops are the size of a liquor store and just as easy to clean.”
Federal guidance for defining essential workforce does not specifically address liquor stores. However, they appear to be covered as a retail store that “sells beverage products.”
Austin Shaker co-owner Kirstyn Litchfield said sales at her two stores have flourished since the health scare reached Austin this month and pushed residents into their homes. The exemption, she said, is appropriate because “booze provides a little escape from reality.“
Spec’s shopper Glenn Beaver had his own take on why liquor stores are still open during a public health crisis.
“Everclear is a disinfectant,” he said.
American-Statesman reporter Arianna Auber contributed to this story.