In May 2021, Texas bars, restaurants, and other licensed alcohol vendors sold $742,884,835 worth of beer, wine, and spirits. This eclipsed the previous record of $722 million in monthly sales from March 2019. Coupled with near-record sales in April 2021 ($689 million, the third-highest monthly sales on record), it certainly appears that Texas drank away from home more than ever the last two months. While that's great news for many suffering bars and restaurants, could this trend prove dangerous for the public at large?
Bars and Restaurants Make Up for Lost Sales
The enforced lockdowns and capacity restrictions for bars and restaurants fell by the wayside in early March 2021, when Governor Greg Abbott lifted the remaining Covid-19-related business restrictions. The concern caused by the virus, paired with those restrictions, hit bars and restaurants particularly hard. For instance, April 2020, saw restaurant beer, wine, and liquor sales plummet to $47 million dollars. That's not much in a state with 29 million people. For the year, 2020 purchases came in $3 billion under 2019 sales.
To say that the bar and restaurant industry suffered a terrible blow in 2020 understates what they went through. From their perspective, record alcohol sales represent a lifeline after a catastrophic year. It's beyond doubt that a fair portion of the record sales come from pent up demand from Texans who endured many months of lockdown conditions.
While I certainly don't have a problem with bars and restaurants making money or their patrons enjoying a good time, it's important to ask whether record alcohol sales could lead to problems on the roadways.
How Strong Is the Connection Between Alcohol Sales and Highway Fatalities?
To be clear, I don't predict the sky will fall just because alcohol sales hit a record. To soberly assess the situation requires teasing out the behavioral noise from what is actually likely to occur. To that end, the problem of drunk driving and the role that bars play in it is complex and evolves with time.
Many rightly point out that while alcohol sales increase year-by-year, drunk driving deaths and injuries declined sharply over the last 40 years. In other words, there isn't a straight line between alcohol sales and drunk driving fatalities. Unlike 40 years ago, drunk driving is not socially acceptable. One can't even compare the increased time and resources that law enforcement devotes to the problem today to the way things were in 1980. Enhanced enforcement and cultural change are the twin pillars that reduce drunk driving crashes.
Over the past decade, drunk driving deaths in Texas have steadily declined, even with increasing alcohol sales. This suggests that there is nothing to worry about. However, drunk driving deaths increased from 2019 to 2020, despite a drastic decline in alcohol sales. I mentioned before that the cultural acceptance of drunk driving decreased substantially in the past 4 decades. It's too soon to know, but one possible explanation for the rise in alcohol deaths in a year without bars is that the cultural stigma of drunk driving eroded for many. While in the past, alcohol sales did not provide a very good indicator of drunk driving deaths, that occurred in a culture that vehemently opposed drunk driving and received a lot of buy-in from the public. 2020 numbers might show that buy-in waning.
Why Didn't Alcohol-Related Fatalities Decline During the Pandemic?
2020 brought about such drastic changes to our way of life that it may take time to get back to old behavior patterns, and there's no reason to believe that drunk driving fatalities should be an exception. For some overview of how 2020 changed the drunk driving landscape, I spoke with award-winning dram shop attorney Michael Grossman. For a bit of background, a large part of the work that Michael does involves using dram shop law to hold bars accountable when a person dies or suffers an injury due to a bar's unlawful alcohol service.
The first thing that jumped out in my conversation with Mr. Grossman is that he was quick to point out that people would expect that the number of injury and wrongful death cases against bars and restaurants would have declined in 2020, given that the government closed bars for most of the year and limited restaurant capacity. Instead, 2020 saw as many dram shop cases arise from illegal alcohol service as any other year in his firm's history.
According to Mike, the reason that cases didn't decline as one would expect is that every liquor liability case has two components; a person who has problems drinking responsibly and a poorly trained employee who breaks the law. The pandemic showed that problem drinkers will find places to drink. They don't much care whether it's a neighborhood bar or a restaurant.
Poor trained service staff are a different matter. They usually indicate irresponsible or poor management/ownership. According the Mr. Grossman, "Far too many alcohol providers labor under the mistaken impression that its their job to get patrons as drunk as they want to get. Thankfully, that's not what the law says." It seems the desperation of 2020 may have led to increasingly lax standards for alcohol sales in some restaurants and bars desperate to stay afloat.
What About Current Conditions Makes the Increase in Alcohol Sales More Worrisome?
In the past, many catastrophic crashes occurred when the irresponsibility of a bar patron found an equally irresponsible bar. It's difficult to doubt that desperation and irresponsible behavior played a role in the increase in drunk driving fatalities last year. Simply put, the pandemic turned a lot of lives upside down, while at the same time making bars and restaurants desperate for any revenue they could get.
Now, add to those desperate people others, who spent a year locked in their dwellings. On top of that, bars and restaurants aren't out of the woods financially either. If alcohol sales records are the result of people socializing in a responsible manner once again, then we have nothing to worry about. However, recent history suggests that may not be the case. That's something to keep in eye on over the ensuing months. People's lives may depend on it.