As Normal Life Slows To A Halt, N.H. Liquor Stores Keep The Spirits Flowing

Mar 20, 2020

New Hampshire's liquor stores remain open for business, despite a shutdown of much of the rest of business and government in New Hampshire.
Credit NHPR / Michael Brindley

Schools are closed. Restaurants and bars have been banned from serving customers on-site. Even the state-owned ski area at Cannon Mountain has gone dark. It's all part of the state's effort to limit the transmission of COVID-19.

But one aspect of life in New Hampshire goes on as usual: state liquor outlets.

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Look no further than a parking lot in downtown Concord for evidence. Before 10 a.m. on a drizzly day when public health officials are advising people to stay home isn’t prime time for selling much of anything. But the liquor store on the city’s Storrs Street was doing a decent trade

One minute it was a man lugging a case of Ezra Brooks and hotfooting it to his truck.

“Please don’t interview me with all this booze,” he yelled over his shoulder.

The next minute was Sylvia Santana walking by with a fifth of Captian Morgan’s rum in hand. She works at a hospital ER department and thinks the state is wrong to put the public at possible risk by keeping liquor stores open.

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“They should be all closed down except for grocery stores, because people need to eat,” she said. “But it is what it is.”

One thing liquor stores definitely are, is a key source of money for the state. Last month, for instance, New Hampshire Liquor Commission profits netted the state $9 million. And at a time when other sources of state revenue - money from business taxes, and the rooms and meals levy - are likely to be hit hard by coronavirus, there is a financial incentive to keep the stores open and move as much product possible.

And that appears to be what the commission is doing. In a statement, a state Liquor Commission spokesman called sales “brisk,” noting: “We have observed some consumers stocking up.” The statement also noted that state liquor outlets are running what it called a “bottle bucks” promo to incentivize purchases over $150. 

Shutting down state liquor stores is rare; in recent years it’s happened only occasionally in cases of extreme weather. And they typically stay open year-round save Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving Day.  So far, there’s been no public talk from the commission of not sticking to that schedule.

Still, some customers aren’t taking any chances.

“Well, I just bought two bottles, just in case they aren’t open,” said Phil Lawrence, moments after exiting the Storrs Street store.

A review of Gov. Chris Sununu’s executive actions in this past week – including a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people at once - show the gravity of this moment. He’s said his administration is even looking at imposing a shelter-in-place order, saying it’s irresponsible to rule anything out when it comes to protecting the state. But, at least so far, he’s said closing liquor stores isn’t something he’s considering.

“In terms of the liquor stores no, not right now,” Sununu said Tuesday. “Very rarely do you have more than 50 people in a store and those restrictions do not apply to private businesses, so no, we are not contemplating anything.”

Which adds a layer of complexity to the phrase: "Drink responsibly."