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Why Are Virginia’s ABC Stores Considered Essential?

Virginia ABC store in Richmond's Fan district
ABC stores are still open, but they're limiting the number of shoppers allowed inside and have cut hours in response to COVID-19. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Many businesses have been forced to close under an emergency order issued by Gov. Ralph Northam last week. But liquor is still flying off the shelves at Virginia’s ABC Stores, which Northam classified as essential businesses.

Northam is in good company; liquor stores in 49 states and Washington D.C. have remained open during stay-at-home orders caused by the COID-19 pandemic, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, an industry group. Pennsylvania, the lone holdout, began offering online sales on Wednesday after a surge in liquor sales in neighboring states.

Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Northam, said that was a factor in his order. 

“Closing liquor stores would not necessarily reduce demand, but could drive consumers to travel further over state lines and/or encourage unregulated markets,” Yarmosky wrote in an email.

Northam’s decision drew flak from Del. John McGuire (R-Goochland), who is running for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger. In a since-deleted Facebook post, McGuire said Northam “deemed YOUR religious services as non-essential” in his emergency order.

“That means you can be punished with up to 12 months in jail and/or and or a $2,500 fine just for going to church...unlike our state’s LIQUOR STORES which he’s exempted,” McGuire wrote.

Northam has urged religious leaders to take their services online to avoid spreading COVID-19. McGuire’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Most governors likely see liquor stores -- and sometimes dispensaries -- as too popular to touch, according to William Pelfrey, chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Homeland Security program at the Wilder School of Government.

He pointed to a run on liquor stores and dispensaries in Denver when those businesses were initially included in mandatory closures there. The mayor of the city quickly backtracked and allowed the stores to remain open.

“There’s another question of the revenue generated by ABC stores,” Pelfrey said. “Virginia’s going to go through a time of economic deprivation over the next six months, perhaps even twelve months, and I’m sure the state would be loath to give up the revenue that comes through ABC stores.”

At least for now, the state is raking it in. Sales at ABC stores the last two weeks of March were up 31% over the same period a year before. Sales last week, however, were down around $10 million from a historic high the week before.

Sales to licensees like restaurants, which generally made up almost 20% of ABCs’ business, have all but disappeared.

“Licensee sales were actually 0% of our sales for 3/22-3/28, as many returned unopened products they cannot currently use,” said Taylor Thornberg, a spokesperson for Virginia ABC.

The stores are operating under reduced hours, from 12 p.m. - 7 p.m., seven days a week. They’re limiting capacity to ten customers and in some cases, offering curbside pickup.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and other mayors have asked Northam to allow restaurants to sell mixed drinks to-go.

Stoney says other states like California and Kentucky have taken that step to help the restaurant industry.

Editor's note: This story has been an updated to include a response from the governor's office.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.