Karmvir Singh Gill is bringing liquor to the doorsteps of Battle Creek residents.
He’s an employee at Beadle Lake General Store in Emmett Township, a small grocery owned by his parents. In Michigan terms, it’s a “party store,” specializing in liquor, beer and wine sales.
Singh Gill saw a growing market of alcohol consumers who are practicing social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak, so he recently launched the web-based Battle Creek Liquor Delivery.
“I started this because of the coronavirus,” Singh Gill said. “The bars shut down. People are stuck at home with nothing to do. What else are you going to do really? That’s why I think this is important. We’re seeing more people showing up at our stores and that’s not helping to stop the spread of the virus.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order that banned public gatherings until May 1, forcing the temporary closure of businesses deemed non-essential.
During Michigan’s stay-at-home order, adults can legally have liquor or marijuana delivered to their car or doorstep. It is bought to them by essential workers who are adapting to social distancing practices such as online delivery and curbside pickup.
Under the order, licensed convenience stores and cannabis providers fall under critical infrastructure “necessary to sustain or protect life or to conduct minimum basic operations.” Among key factors in keeping these businesses open are fears that closing them would overburden an already taxed health care system.
47 states consider alcohol sales essential
Currently, 47 states consider alcohol sales essential, while three have placed some limits on sales. In Alabama, it is limited to curbside pickup only; in Pennsylvania there is a ban on in-person hard liquor sales; and in New Mexico, stand-alone liquor stores are closed.
Michigan’s “party stores” fall under the federal guidelines for critical infrastructure. According to the executive order, workers “at retail stores who sell groceries, medical supplies, and products necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation, and basic operation of residences, including convenience stores…” are considered essential.
Grocery chains like Meijer and Walmart sell beer, wine and liquor in-store as well as through delivery services. In Michigan, there are 4,613 “specially designated distributor” (SDD) licences issued, and that number does not differentiate between grocery stores and what is considered a liquor or party store.
“That license type can be issued to what might be considered as a traditional ‘liquor store,’ but many grocery stores also have them,” said Michigan Liquor Control Commission information officer Jeannie Vogel. “There is no way in our system that we differentiate between an SDD issued to a store that is primarily selling liquor and one that is issued to a grocery store.”
‘We do not sell toilet paper’
Scott Nieko owns MEGA-BEV, a convenience store chain with locations in Battle Creek, Marshall, Kalamazoo, Portage, Hastings, Grand Rapids and Lansing. He optionally decided to close his stores for three weeks until re-opening as curbside service only on April 13.
“We were aware we could be open, but we have seven locations in five counties, and close to 100 employees, and we didn’t want our employees to be at risk and we didn’t want to be a business that was helping to spread the virus,” Nieko said. “We were down for three weeks and everybody’s safety is of paramount concern. During that time, we devised the procedures and protocol for being open curbside to have no contact with anybody. Our curbside service is done through the website or customers can call us while in parking lot. They get out and open their trunk, show their I.D., then our staff member will bring it to them.”
Nieko said MEGA-BEV is still working out the logistics of delivery from its locations, which as convenience stores, are required to additionally sell non-alcoholic items such as ice, pop and snacks.
“We do not sell toilet paper, we’re not geared toward that,” he said. “You sell the items that go well with your business so to speak. You carry the items that would be in a grocery store that align more to your business.”
What about bars, restaurants and breweries?
There is currently a change.org petition seeking to allow Michigan bars and restaurants temporarily sell alcohol to-go. An emergency rule in Ohio allows any restaurant with a liquor permit to sell alcoholic drinks, including limited quantities of hard liquor and cocktails, to take-out or delivery customers.
Whitmer has directed the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to use its revolving fund to buy back spirits remaining in inventory from bars and restaurants that was purchased prior to March 16 for their full purchase price.
“Michigan’s 8,500 on-premises liquor licensees continue to make unprecedented sacrifices to help slow the spread of COVID-19 across our state,” Whitmer said of the order in a written statement. “This buy-back program will help our bars and restaurants critical to Michigan’s economy weather the storm through this challenging time in our history.”
A number of Michigan breweries have turned to making hand sanitizer to combat shortages, including Holland-based New Holland Brewing Co., which has plans to open a new location in Battle Creek later this year.
HandMap Brewing in downtown Battle Creek planned a soft opening in March before the virus outbreak. It began offering curbside pickup on April 10 and within hours sold out its initial inventory of canned beer.
While this can be attributed to excitement over the new establishment, it also coincides with a national spike in alcoholic beverage sales.
According to the market research firm Neilsen, there was a 55% rise in sales during the week ending on March 21, presumably as people stocked up amid stay-at-home orders. Sales of spirits jumped 75 percent compared to the same dates in 2019. Beer purchases were up by 66 percent and wine up 42 percent year-over-year.
Impact on health care
The World Health Organization warns that alcohol may put people at increased risk for coronavirus and weaken the body’s immune system.
According to National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Director George F. Koob, “there are roughly 250,000 emergency department visits and 850 deaths each year related to alcohol withdrawal.”
Nieko said he understands alcohol dependency to be a factor in decisions that states are making to keep party stores like his open during the pandemic.
“As alcohol retailers, we have a huge responsibility in all the communities where we operate,” he said. “You understand you are essential to people’s daily lives for comfort and a degree of relaxation. But you are also essential for the people who, unfortunately, are dependent on alcohol. You don’t want people taxing our medical system also.”
The World Health Organization says alcohol may put people at increased risk for the coronavirus, weakening the body’s immune system or causing behavioral risks that could increase the likelihood of contracting coronavirus.
Even with added concerns over the safety of consuming alcohol during the pandemic, widespread prohibition seems highly unlikely given previous attempts at the state and federal level.
As always, drinking beer, wine and spirits remains a matter of personal responsibility.
Tucker Kulish said he understands why liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries are generally conflated under the executive order, but he doesn’t like the comparison.
Co-owner of Great Lakes Holistics in Battle Creek, his business is currently providing delivery and curbside pickup of medical marijuana to registered patients.
“I can appreciate what the state is doing because I see the patients first hand,” Kulish said. “We are essential. We’re an alternative medicine. So if you cut out that chain of supply, people would look for alternatives and the health care system is already flooded. You have people going through chemo treatments who use medical marijuana, so its difficult to take that away.”
The Michigan Cannabis Industry Association sent a letter to Whitmer on March 18, requesting that she classify marijuana an essential product, arguing that a lack of access would overburden the health care system. Robin Schneider, executive director of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, wrote, “Studies have shown cannabis can reduce anxiety and stress and we believe continued access to this product during this time is pertinent.”
According to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, there are currently 141 out of 232 medical provisioning centers approved for home delivery.
“The weird thing is delivery hasn’t seen too much uptick,” Kulish said of sales. “It’s picked up a little, we thought delivery would go crazy. But we’ve been lucky enough to stay pretty steady. There’s a lot of adjustments, only doing curbside delivery, which has definitely been nuts.”
Adult-use recreational marijuana sales became legal in Michigan on Dec. 1, 2019, and the state recorded nearly $32 million in sales through March 1. The recreational market is projected to be worth $1.4 billion annually.
Currently, 51 of 88 adult-use retailers are approved for home delivery. During the pandemic, the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency has temporarily expedited the process for approval of establishments not currently licensed for home delivery and relaxed a rule that says delivery addresses have to match the address on customers ID.
3Fifteen Cannabis sells medical and adult-use marijuana in nine Michigan cities, with two locations in Battle Creek that are managed by Carlos Garrido. He said on Thursday that business is starting to pick up ahead of April 20, the unofficial national holiday for cannabis users.
“We’re running some deals right now for 4/20 week,” Garrido said. “A lot of people are stocking up, and the stimulus check came yesterday for a lot of people, so we were really busy yesterday and I was really happy about that.”
To date, Massachusetts is the only state where medicinal and recreational marijuana are legal that has closed recreational cannabis stores during the COVID-19 outbreak.
According to Tommy Nafso, general council for 3Fifteen Cannabis, keeping recreational establishments open is helping people get through the pandemic while not flooding the health care system.
“Since recreational facilities became an option to consumers, many people who use marijuana for medicinal purposes – who may otherwise be medical patients – don’t necessarily go through the physician referral process needed in order to become officially qualified as patients.” he said. “Without recreational facilities, those people would not have another option, especially considering obtaining a physician referral during this time is a near impossibility.”
Nick Buckley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley
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