COVID-19 appears to have triggered a spike in liquor sales

At Mullets on March 17, Iowans came out to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. That same day, the governor ordered Iowa bars to shut down at noon. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Liquor sales in Iowa for the month of March shot up 26% over the same period in 2019, the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division announced Friday.

Much of the sharp increase in liquor sales in March is believed to be attributable to changes in consumer behavior due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the division reported.

The increase represents an additional $31.9 million in sales over March 2019.

Iowa bars and restaurants were ordered closed to the public for sit-down service beginning on March 17 to help prevent the spread of the virus. As a result, Iowans appear to have shifted to purchasing liquor by the bottle for at-home consumption.

The division sells liquor to off-premises retailers — such as liquor stores, grocery stores, and convenience stores — and cannot track individual purchases of liquor by consumers. However, sales data for March 16 through April 1 indicates an 82% increase in the number of cases of 1.75 liter liquor products sold by ABD to off-premises retailers compared to the same time frame in 2019.

Case sales of standard-sized 750 milliliter bottles increased by 51%. That surge is believed to reflect increased by-the-bottle purchases by consumers.

“We can’t be certain that these sales figures demonstrate an increase in personal consumption,” said ABD Administrator Stephen Larson. “Iowans may have simply changed where they are continuing to enjoy their favorite spirits products. Regardless, we encourage all Iowans who choose to consume alcohol to always do so in a moderate and responsible manner.”

Liquor sales for the month of April increased a modest 2% over the same period in 2019, the division reported.

Although they have been ordered closed to the public for sit-down service, bars and restaurants have been granted temporary alcohol sales privileges.

Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a proclamation on March 19 allowing bars and restaurants to sell unopened bottles of liquor on a to-go basis. That week, case sales of 50 milliliter bottles of liquor increased 60% over sales during the same week in 2019. That also coincided with restaurants creating to-go cocktail kits containing 50 milliliter bottles of liquor and various mixers.

On March 31, the governor signed another proclamation allowing bars and restaurants to sell, on a to-go basis, mixed drinks and cocktails made on site. The following week, case sales of 750 milliliter bottles of liquor increased by almost 20%.

Iowa’s bars and restaurants are required to purchase liquor for resale to customers from off-premises retailers, such as liquor stores.

Sales figures show that the state’s largest independently owned liquor stores have reduced their purchases from the division by 44% since March 17. Many of these independent retailers rely on selling liquor to bars and restaurants and have seen that portion of their business significantly decline due to the COVID-19-related closures.

On April 27, Gov. Reynolds issued a proclamation reopening restaurants in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties for limited sit-down service effective May 1.

A follow-up proclamation from the governor on May 13 reopened restaurants in the remaining 22 counties effective May 15. It’s expected that with these reopenings, the demand for liquor by restaurants will increase.

COVID-19 has also affected some licensing trends related to alcohol. There was a sharp decline in the number of 5- and 14-day alcohol licenses issued in March and April, as well as applications submitted for licenses for May, June and July. These temporary licenses are generally obtained for special events like fairs, festivals and concerts during spring and summer.

In March 2020, there were 38 5-day and two 14-day licenses issued. This was a decrease of 25% and 33%, respectively, compared to March 2019. April saw even larger decreases, with nine 5-day and zero 14-day licenses issued, a decrease of 84% and 100%, respectively, compared to 2019.

Applications for 5- and 14-day licenses effective in May, June and July are currently at their lowest levels based on historical licensing data available. A major contributing factor to this is the cancellation of popular summertime events due to COVID-19.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.