US & Canada

Coronavirus: How the pandemic is relaxing US drinking laws

'Cocktails to go' sign Image copyright Getty Images

Coronavirus has Americans picking up two new summer accessories: a mask and an alcoholic to-go drink.

After weeks of sheltering in place, many Americans are looking for ways to cut loose.

With bars and restaurants closed to the public in most states, and summer weather approaching, that means that many are heading outdoors to relax and socialise.

And for some, that means having a drink - sometimes in spite of the law.

Veteran drinks writer Amanda Schuster says that in her neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, "it seems like everyone's over" prohibitions on public drinking.

"It's as if people have the attitude that 'no one's going to arrest us for this when they have other things to do,'" Ms Schuster, who is the editor-in-chief for online magazine Alcohol Professor, told the BBC.

This laissez-faire approach is something Americans used to have to go abroad to experience.

While an 18-year-old can walk into a London pub and order a pint, the national minimum age to purchase alcohol in the US has been 21 since 1984, when Congress passed the Minimum Drinking Age Act, in part over concerns about drink-driving fatalities.

Image copyright Getty Images

In many countries in Europe like Germany, it is perfectly fine to go for a stroll with a beer or bring wine to a picnic. But in the US, carrying open alcohol in public is largely forbidden, except in a handful of municipalities.

A notable exception in the US is New Orleans, Louisiana, a city that proudly boasts its relaxed open container laws, giving it the feel of a European town.

"We are considered fairly puritanical when compared to other countries in regard to liquor laws," Ms Schuster says.

When the 21st Amendment repealed national prohibition in 1933, states were given the ultimate power to decide who could manufacture, sell and drink alcohol. That means that most states exercise tight control over who can sell alcohol, when, and where.

But as the realities of the coronavirus pandemic transform many aspects of American social life, many states are relaxing their rules.

Within days of enacting shelter-in-place ordinances and closing non-essential businesses, many states rescinded laws that previously restricted restaurants from selling alcohol to-go.

Others loosened rules around online liquor sales, or made it easier for customers to buy directly from breweries and wineries.

In most jurisdictions, the sale of alcohol was deemed "essential", with the exception of the US state of Pennsylvania, which closed all state-run liquor stores.

"It's about creating revenue and helping these poor businesses," said Ms Schuster.

In addition to helping bars and restaurants stay afloat, states benefit from keeping their citizens buying booze. Taxes on alcohol serve as a large source of revenue for many states.

And as the lockdown drags on, and coronavirus stress continues, the data shows that alcohol sales show no signs of dropping.

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The week that New York announced the shelter-in-place, Nielsen reported alcohol sales had gone up significantly since the same time the previous year.

And last week, they reported that the US saw the largest growth of alcohol sales since the pandemic shutdowns started in March.

It's a trend that is common in times of disaster, says Dr George Koob, the Director of the National Abuse of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

"We know historically that during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina there was an upswing in alcohol consumption," he told the BBC.

With more people drinking and to-go alcohol laws being loosened to protect businesses, many local governments have issued warnings that allowing to-go alcohol sales at restaurants and bars does not change open container laws.

Alexandria, Virginia's government website states:

"Although the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority has temporarily allowed licensed restaurants and bars to sell beer, wine and mixed drinks for carryout and delivery, the Alexandria City Code still prohibits carrying open containers of alcohol in public."

But in certain areas, there's some indication that police aren't focusing on people drinking in public.

Just over an hour north, Baltimore, Maryland has said it will dismiss pending criminal charges for people arrested for many non-violent crimes, including breaking open container laws.

The Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby said that this in an effort to curb the number of people in jails that are proving to be a potential "breeding ground" of the virus.

Dr Koob says it's still too soon to tell how the new to-go cup policies will change alcohol behaviour, but the NIAAA is in the process of tracking it.

However, he pointed out that with alcohol sales increasing and more people drinking, the loss of inhibition could lead to more people drinking outside.

"Alcohol's effect on the body is disinhibition. Some of these individuals who are drinking a little more because of the isolation and the stress are disinhibited so they might think it's okay to go outside for a walk and take their beverage with them."

Whether or not alcohol to-go laws will remain the norm in the US after coronavirus passes remains to be seen, but Ms Schuster thinks it will be hard "to put the genie back in the bottle".

Image copyright Getty Images

She may be right.

On 28 April, Texas Governor Greg Abbott tweeted that the state would be extending the temporary rule that allowed restaurants to serve alcohol to-go to continue past 1 May, when it was initially set to expire.

And he implied that this rule may be here to stay.

"From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever," Governor Abbott tweeted.

Thank you for your comments.

I ordered a burrito at my local cafe and got a beer to go. Sipped it on my 1/2 mile bike ride home. Andrew Finchamp, Chino, California

Writing from Williamsport, PA (yes: Little League Country): to-go cocktails and drive-up six-packs are common. Two recent daytime keg parties observed in our sleepy quiet neighborhood township of Loyalsock. Both featured an open garage with visible taps, a yard full of partying Pennsylvanians, and large pick-up trucks parked along the street. We go for walks quite often and see stuff. I must admit I usually carry a cold beer along, and some peanuts for the squirrels. These are difficult times, my friends, and a nice buzz doesn't hurt. Jeff Vetock, Williamsport, Pennsylvania

In my neighborhood, have seen more and more people going on walks with bottles of beers and glasses of wine. You could expect to see it maybe once when the weather is nice - but even now with poor weather you see it more and more. Even at the local fishing pier, where having an open beverage before would often result in glares or warnings from officials, is now a sea of open containers while people aren't working and trying to enjoy the outdoors. Rob Eckert, Detroit, Michigan

Yes, I have definitely seen an increase in outdoor drinking in the metro Vancouver regional parks. The local police do not seem to be bothered by this in the slightest. Outdoor open drinks are NOT legal here in B.C., but people really do seem to be shunning the laws and carrying on with it. Colin Nellis, Surrey, British Columbia, Canada

For the first time ever I have been able to buy liquor, beer in this case online from a local micro brewery. Also we have been given the okay to have an alcoholic drink with our neighbours in our front gardens. A first, but coming from Europe, about time. Not all is bad with the pandemic. Catie Oates, North Saanich, British Columbia, Canada

In New York state, bars and restaurants will even deliver cocktails to your home right now. And every time we get takeout from one of our great local restaurants, we make sure to grab a few pints for the road, something unthinkable eight weeks ago. No one cares suddenly and there's no true harm in it. I suspect the new economy in America will be far more tolerant of such things. Robert Holahan, Binghamton, New York

In Fort Lauderdale the bars have opened the pavement outside their premises to clientele. This has led to a street party atmosphere and in some cases the social distancing has been non-existent. Overall the customers are enjoying the freedom of drinking outside. Mi Gael Dutton, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

While this is a Florida beach resort city, and it was already legal to walk the streets with an open container, I would say that it is even more relaxed, and restaurants which are still selling only take-away food are also selling take-away package liquors as well. So you can get your coconut shrimp basket with a rum runner in a to-go cup. This is legal ON FOOT, but it runs afoul of the states open container laws in a vehicle. Nobody is paying any attention to that at this time. Bob Gassert, Madeira Beach, Florida