Alcohol sales have soared as people use drinking to relax during the Covid-19 crisis, and experts are raising concerns.
Whatever day you read this – at whatever hour – you can bet that someone in the Facebook group Quarantined Beer Chugs is shotgunning a beer or swigging a bottle.
They drink to mark the end of long, isolated days. They toast to getting face masks and unemployment benefits. At least one of the group’s 329,000 members has even chugged to celebrate her recovery from Covid-19: “Tired of being couped [sic] up!” she captioned. “Here is my first post-Covid shotgun!!!!!”
Unsurprisingly, the worst pandemic in 100 years has driven many to drink. Weekly retail sales of alcoholic beverages have, according to the market research firm Nielsen, recently jumped 25 to 55%. Social media is drowning in vitamin-rimmed “quarantinis”, virtual drinking games and Zoom happy hours.
According to the breathalyzer app BACTrack, which logs average blood alcohol among its users, consumption spiked in several US cities after the passage of stay-at-home orders. Even Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa food mogul and a portrait of homey wholesomeness, is quaffing cosmos out of a super-sized martini glass: “It’s always cocktail hour in a crisis!” she quipped on Instagram.
“We know that drinking can increase under stressful conditions – that’s well-documented in the literature,” said Dr Rajita Sinha, director of Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Stress Center. “But the broader question you have is: Is that okay? And I would be wary. I would ask, are there alternative ways to cope with stress that are healthier?”
For Richard McGilvray, a condo building concierge in Buffalo, NY, drinking has only latterly become a way to deal with stress. But the 26-year-old, who said he “almost never drank” before the quarantine, has taken to downing three or four Labatt beers while he plays Animal Crossing with his pregnant girlfriend. Neither one can work remotely, and their “essential” jobs feel newly risky and precarious.
“I’m just kind of trying to relax,” McGilvray said. “This could all be swept away from us.”
Across the country, in Sonoma county, California, 28-year-old programmer Mary-Katherine McKenzie is more secure – but equally buzzed. Siloed in her boyfriend’s weekend home with two friends, McKenzie’s lockdown has at times felt like an “extended vacation”. The hours melt together; it “always feels like Thursday,” she said.
And because the old schedules and norms are no longer as rigid, drinking earlier in the day, or on weekday nights, no longer feels inappropriate. One US university professor, who asked not to be named because of his work, said he has watched some of his colleagues start drinking as early as 11.
He himself has contemplated the goldmine of data this period will give social science researchers. It’s a great natural experiment, he said, of the type academics always hope for. How did these weeks of isolation – and the wave of liberalized alcohol norms they prompted – impact cancer rates? Liver disease? Domestic violence?
Recently, the professor drank half a bottle of bourbon during a Zoom happy hour with some colleagues and friends.
“I don’t feel like I’m becoming an alcoholic – I don’t crave it,” he said. “But as a social scientist, I do wonder: what is driving that?”
Those sorts of questions are critical now, said Dr Priscilla Martinez, a scientist studying the health effects of drinking at the Alcohol Research Group, a federally funded research center. Heavy drinking is not good for human health, under any circumstances – and recent research by Martinez, Sinha and others has shown that alcohol disrupts the immune system and compromises the brain’s stress-coping mechanisms.
Among many other conditions, people with alcohol use disorders are more likely to develop respiratory diseases. They’re also more likely to struggle with issues like relapse and bingeing in quarantine. The World Health Organization recently published guidance encouraging people to “minimize their alcohol consumption at any time, and particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
But Martinez hesitates to mandate that drinkers go cold turkey. That’s not realistic, she said. And usually light or social drinkers are unlikely to develop habits that outlast the pandemic. Instead, it’s important that people track when, why and how much they’re drinking, and whether that changes.
“I think it’s good to acknowledge the total bizarreness of the situation we’re in,” Martinez said. “It’s unlikely this will be the rest of our lives. What we’re doing now doesn’t have to be permanent.”
That said, “awareness of your own drinking is important”, she added.
Fortunately, some pandemic drinkers have reached that conclusion, themselves. One American teacher in Shanghai said he poured out every bottle of liquor in his house after realizing his drinking had become destructive.
Even Quarantined Beer Chugs – that pinnacle of pandemic inebriation – has lately adopted a different tone. In the interest of “encouraging healthy habits,” said 31-year-old group founder Andrew Beile, QBC now hosts thrice-weekly “hydration days” and uses the slogan “all chugs welcome”. Posters will occasionally chug milk or water next to the usual beer, wine and vodka.
“It’s diverted from just chugging beers,” Beile said. “Because I realized this could become a long bender.”