Early in the pandemic, Douglas Watters and his wife decided they needed a bright line to separate their workday from their leisure. So they started a ritual of having a cocktail together in their New York home to mark the end of the workday.
But Watters soon became uncomfortable with the amount of alcohol he was drinking over the course of the week, and he began looking for nonalcoholic alternatives that would bring the same amount of pleasure without the potential negative effects.
Along the way, he became a one-man snapshot of two trends in alcohol consumption during the pandemic.
On one hand, the stresses of COVID-19 drove some Americans to drink more. Alcohol consumption spiked in March 2020, when widespread lockdowns began, and sales grew 20% between February 2020 and February 2021, said George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
While most Americans were unable to go to bars and restaurants during most of 2020, some used businesses such as Drizly that allow people to order beer, wine and liquor for at-home delivery.
But other people have doubled down on their efforts to be healthy and made the decision to reduce their alcohol intake or cut out drinking altogether.
Watters sees that at Spirited Away, the business he opened in November to offer other New Yorkers the sorts of spirits he was looking for last spring, when he decided to cut back on drinking. (In the world of adult beverages, spirits are distilled drinks, such as brandy or tequila.) Watters’ store in Manhattan’s Lower East Side sells alcohol-free spirits from around the world, shrubs (vinegar-based cordials), as well as mixers and alcohol-free beer and wine, and books about living without alcohol.
And, about 5 miles away, on the other side of the East River, a “dry bar” that opened before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19 is still operating in a business environment that is challenging for even traditional bars.
Still, health officials are concerned that binge drinking, especially among women, has increased during the pandemic. It’s too soon to know what effect the pandemic is having on underage drinking and alcohol-related fatalities, but here’s what we know so far.
Boredom and stress
According to Koob, who has led the national institute since 2014, it’s not unusual for alcohol consumption to rise after a large-scale traumatic event, such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 recession. This is true not only in America, but around the world.
During the 2003 SARS epidemic, people in China who were in quarantine or worked in high-risk places were more likely to use alcohol than other individuals. And researchers believe that this contributed to higher levels of alcohol abuse and dependence three years later.
“Similarly, adults in New York City with post-traumatic stress disorders two years after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center also reported increased alcohol use and binge drinking,” wrote Elyse Grossman, Sara Benjamin Neelon and Susan Sonnenschein, authors of a study released in December on drinking during COVID-19.
The researchers examined the self-reported drinking of 832 Americans last spring. Sixty percent reported that they were drinking more than they did before the pandemic; 13% said they were drinking less.
Those who reported more drinking cited increased stress (45.7%), increased alcohol availability (34.4%) and boredom (30.1%), the researchers said. More than a third reported binge drinking, which the NIAAA defines as four drinks within two hours for women, five drinks within two hours for men.
While concerning to health experts, the increase in drinking is not surprising because people are looking for substitutes for the neurological rewards that we get by being with other people, Koob said. “We are social animals, being primates, and (being with other people) is a major source of pleasure and reward, and that has necessarily decreased as we adopted the Zoom culture.”
But increased drinking is more prevalent among people reporting higher levels of COVID-related stress, and people who already struggle with anxiety or depression.
“It’s not so much that the overall country is boozing it up, but certain individuals are very vulnerable to using (alcohol) as a coping response,” Koob said.
Michael S. Pollard, a senior sociologist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank based in Santa Monica, California, is the lead author of a study that showed binge drinking among women increased by 41% early in the pandemic, compared to the same month the previous year.
Researchers also found that problems associated with alcohol use, as identified on what is known as the Short Inventory of Problems scale, rose by 39% among women. This means that about 1 in 10 women were struggling with issues related to their drinking, such as not eating properly, feeling guilty or ashamed, or doing risky things, which is of heightened concern during a pandemic, Pollard said.
“During COVID, it’s particularly important that people pay attention to their behavior. If you binge drink, you’re less likely to wear a mask, you’re more likely to go up to people and give them hugs and not maintain social distance,” he said.
With the world just having passed the one-year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the research is ongoing and primarily limited to what happened in the first few months. RAND researchers and others will be tracking the longtime effects, he said.
“The question is, was this a temporary spike and is it going to come down to baseline, or is it continuing to get worse? That is really the question,” Pollard said.
But like Koob, Pollard said there seems to have been two disparate responses to COVID-19 and alcohol use. “There was one group that started drinking more, and a group that really cut back,” he said.
It’s too early to say if the increased availability of nonalcoholic cocktails and beer will bring about a sweeping change in consumption, similar to how the rise of lab-grown meat products could disrupt animal farming.
“The only metric I have is how many press interviews I do about (the) Sober Curious (movement) and Dry January and Dry October. But they’re increasing,” Koob said.
“I think young people do seem to be seeking other alternatives for ways of interacting socially, and I would suspect that being the capitalistic society we are, the beverage industry is seeing the same data and looking to provide that commodity.”
The interest in nonalcoholic beer as reflected in this year’s Super Bowl broadcast, which had ads for low-alcohol beer. Sales of low- and no-alcohol products grew by 7% last year, according to the New York Post, which reported, “Heineken and Pabst introduced nonalcoholic beers last year. Some craft brewers, like Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing Co., are exclusively making nonalcoholic beers.”
Sam Thonis, the owner of an alcohol-free bar in Brooklyn, New York, that opened 2 years ago, said his business remained open for all but six weeks during the pandemic, with some adjustments to the menu; for example, he started offering window-service coffee.
He remains optimistic about the future and has no plans to pivot and serve alcohol.
“I’ve always said I’d rather close than serve alcohol. It wasn’t like I wanted to open a bar; I opened a no-alcohol bar and that’s what it is,” he said, adding “Every significant brewery seems to have a nonalcoholic option; it’s no longer this weird thing they’re testing out.”
Watters, at Spirited Away, said that his customers have different motivations for wanting adult beverages without the alcohol, but there is a common theme: “People want to be thoughtful and intentional about their health and what they consume.”
It’s unclear whether people who drink alcohol specifically for its consciousness-altering effects will embrace the range of nonalcoholic options. The no-alcohol spirits don’t have the “burn” of alcohol but many replicate the taste.
Watters likened the experience to eating a plant-based burger, which may not taste exactly like beef by itself, but when put on a bun, with a pickle and condiments, can be a satisfying replacement for meat.
“Spirits are the same way,” he said. “If you recreate the experience, it holds up really nicely.”