The Montana Department of Revenue says hard alcohol sales in March spiked to levels usually just seen during the holidays.
Gene Walborn, Director of the Montana Revenue Department, briefed state lawmakers in a recent legislative oversight interim committee about the impacts of COVID-19 on the agency.
"Where we’re at, it’s interesting and this is a situation across the country, alcohol sales are at like holiday season sales right now. So we’re seeing product going through the warehouse at what we typically see in December, January," Walborn said.
According to the DOR, liquor sales from the department to the 95 agency liquor stores across the state rose about 20 percent in March of this year compared to this time in 2019. Those sales do not include beer, wine, cider or sales made by breweries or distilleries.
In April, sales returned to normal as the amount of cases sold this year were similar to the amount sold in April 2019.
Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency in response to the novel coronavirus on Mar. 12. His stay-at-home order lasted from Mar. 28 through Apr. 26.
Sanjay Talwani, a spokesperson for the Montana Department of Revenue, said the agency couldn’t speculate about how the rise in alcohol sales may be impacting individual drinking habits or potential binge drinking in Montana.
Natasha Gonzales with the Rocky Mountain Treatment Center in Great Falls says isolation created by social distancing measures can make sobriety harder for people who misuse substances.
"They considered liquor stores to be essential businesses and I think that’s because they didn’t want to flood emergency rooms during this time with a lot of people detoxing off of alcohol and you know getting that extra money and unemployment is the perfect antidote for any alcoholic," Gonzales said.
According to 2015 data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Montana ranked among the top states in the nation for the prevalence of binge drinking among adults. At the time, a little over 21 percent of adults reported binge drinking, which is counted as five or more drinks on an occasion for men or four or more for women.
Research published by the CDC earlier this year says Montana is among nine states where the number of drinks consumed by binge drinking adults increased significantly between 2011 and 2017.
Jeff Quackenbush is the administrator at Rocky Mountain Treatment Center and says they haven’t seen an increase in people seeking treatment yet, but he expects that could change.
"The friend of addiction is isolation. And so whenever you’re locked in isolation it causes more relapses," Quackenbush said.
Alcoholics Anonymous in Montana has started hosting online meetings in order to provide support for people while still practicing social distancing.
Quackenbush says people should not hesitate to reach out for help.
"And also, open your hearts to your friends and family that are probably telling you about this. Lots of times we are in such denial when we are going through this process we think we can handle it. It's I can stop at any time. But the hard part is listening to the person who says, actually I’m seeing that you can’t," Quackenbush said.