Unlike the rest of us, alcohol has had a pretty good year. Ever since social distancing guidelines launched in March, quaran-tinis and wine delivery became a way to break up the day, bond virtually with friends and perhaps relieve some existential stress.
Nationwide, alcohol sales were up 55% the week ending March 21, 2020, compared to the previous year, according to Nielsen data.
As the year of shutdowns progresses, attitudes and behaviors in quarantine are shifting. Some people are trying to limit their alcohol intake or abstain altogether as they navigate pandemic life. To that end, a federal committee recently advised men to consume just one alcoholic beverage a day, down from previous recommended limit of two.
There’s little data on trends toward moderation or abstinence this year. To explore this complex phenomenon, we talked to 50 people between the ages of 20 and 60, all of whom had decided to reduce or stop alcohol consumption.
Individual relationships to alcohol vary, of course.
Tori Allen, a self-employed publicist in Buffalo, New York, had worked to understand her anxiety disorder in the years prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic. When it arrived, she started to experience debilitating anxiety attacks.
“I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move,” she says. “It was full-on.” Each episode was triggered by financial concerns. Many of Allen’s clients were restaurants, an industry hit hard by the pandemic.
So, on March 20, Allen stopped drinking. “Not only could I not justify even $35 per week for alcohol, but also, I knew, after taking a microscope to my drinking habits, that it would make things difficult if I decided to throw alcohol into an already volatile mix,” she says.
Others say they began to wonder if they drank too much in their pre-pandemic lives. Quarantine can be an opportune time to explore sobriety: no awkward social encounters or business meetings, no unwanted questions, no feelings of embarrassment or shame.
“It’s so much easier to lose control when I’m left to my own devices,” says one 40-year-old woman who lives alone in New York City, who asked to remain anonymous to respect her privacy. She found herself consuming three bottles of wine in a weekend. When April arrived, feeling tired and frustrated, she stopped drinking altogether.
“I knew, after taking a microscope to my drinking habits, that it would make things difficult if I decided to throw alcohol into an already volatile mix.”
For Ben Powell, a professor of communications at City University of New York’s Borough of Manhattan Community College, to drink alcohol felt like a way to take control. While the safety mandates make him feel powerless, to alter his own mental state was something in his own hands.
“I’m choosing to engage in behavior,” he says. It was satisfying for a while, “but then, that’s problematic, because booze takes control away from me, too.” Powell hasn’t had a drink in a month.
None of these people has decided to stop drinking for good, but most have recalibrated alcohol’s level of importance in their lives.
Farideh Sadeghin, culinary director at Vice’s Munchies, looks forward to other ways to socialize, like boxing classes. Since she stopped drinking at the start of the shutdown in New York City, she’s lost 15 pounds, taken up macramé, read 10 books and purchased a trampoline.
“I’m very into not drinking,” says Sadeghin, who used to play drinking games on her online video series, The Cooking Show. “Who knows? I may not go back to it after this is all over.”
For those who quit drinking prior to the pandemic due to substance abuse or other concerns, the isolation and stress presents challenges.
Colleen Vincent, director of culinary community initiatives for the James Beard Foundation, has been sober for almost 12 years. After she recovered from Covid-19 and lost some loved ones, she “wondered if not drinking was really worth it for a minute.”
Vincent, a Caribbean-American, points to a statistic from the APM Research Lab that Black Americans have died from Covid-19 at a rate of 88.4 per 100,000 people, compared with 54.4 for Latinos, 40.4 for whites and 36.4 for Asian-Americans.
Numbers like that, she says, “make drinking sound like a good idea.” But instead, Vincent goes outside for a daily walk. She picks up the phone more often. She also says she takes comfort from her “adorable” cat.
Cultivating gratitude is key, says Mickey Bakst, cofounder of Ben’s Friends, a support group geared toward the food and beverage industry. Sober for 37 years, Bakst says that “finding that gratitude today takes an enormous effort that I have not had to exert in the past.”
Ben’s Friends offers national meetings daily at 1:00 p.m. EDT, and 11:00 p.m. EDT on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Those outside the hospitality industry can access an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting guide at aa.org.
Podcast producer Erica Gerard calls her relationship with alcohol “complicated,” and she’s flirted with sobriety at various points in her life.
“When Covid hit and there was an overwhelming sense of pandemonium everywhere and tremendous fear and anxiety, I played the tape forward in my head,” she says. Was she going to numb out with alcohol? Would she eliminate it to manage whatever challenges this pandemic might bring her way?
In early March, Gerard got rid of the alcohol in her home, even “that old bottle of brandy in the back of the cupboard that hasn’t been touched in years.” She likes the stability that quarantine sobriety has provided, but she doesn’t love the probing from friends who ask, “Are you still not drinking?”
So, she changed her response from “I’m not drinking right now,” to something she’s discovered puts an end to this particular conversation: “I don’t drink.” The linguistic shift proved useful for Gerard, one of a growing community of people reconsidering consumption habits during quarantine, and perhaps in their post-pandemic lives.