Seemingly the moment the pandemic arrived, liquor stores got busier.
“Ever since COVID hit, alcohol sales have been up really high,” said Kaesy Smetana, manager at Aman’s Beer + Wine, 26210 W. Loomis Road, Wind Lake. “It hit pretty fast with our alcohol sales.”
To compensate, Aman’s doubled its staff from four to eight. And it isn’t the only business that’s seen such a change.
If you think you’ve been drinking more alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic, the State of Wisconsin has the tax receipts to prove it.
Alcohol taxes collected in Wisconsin jumped nearly 17% in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to state tax revenue data analyzed by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.
That’s the largest jump since 1972, when the drinking age was lowered to 18, before being raised to 21 in 1984.
It comes in spite of supply chain issues that have plagued seemingly every brick-and-mortar business in the country.
“There’s certain products we can’t get — glass shortage, can shortage, factories shutting down because of COVID,” Smetana said.
By the numbers
Data from the state Department of Administration and Legislative Fiscal Bureau show Wisconsin’s excise tax revenue on alcoholic beverage sales are projected to reach about $73.8 million, a 16.6% increase from the $63.3 million collected in the previous fiscal year.
The Forum reports that the only other comparable jumps in state alcohol tax revenues over the last 60 years came in 1972, after the state increased the liquor and wine tax and lowered the legal drinking age, and in 1964, when it also increased the wine tax.
The largest annual increase between 2009 and 2020 was only 2.4%.
Alcohol taxes in Wisconsin are based on the volume of beverage sold, with beer taxed at about 6.5 cents per gallon and hard liquor taxed at $3.25 per gallon. Wine is taxed at 25 cents per gallon if the alcohol content is 14% or less by volume and 45 cents per gallon for wines with a higher alcohol content. Hard cider is taxed at 6 cents per gallon if the alcohol content is less than 7%, and if higher it is taxed the same as wine.
The Forum did not include in the report the state’s general 5% sales tax collected by alcohol retailers.
Substance abuse likely increased during pandemic
While it’s difficult to fully evaluate COVID-19’s impact on state alcohol sales, the Policy Forum reports it’s likely that restrictions on gatherings and social events, paired with the mental and emotional toll of the ongoing pandemic, may have resulted in increased drinking habits in a state that already ranks high in alcohol consumption.
“For individuals, this period also may have generated increased stress about personal health and the health of loved ones, lost or reduced employment, fewer work or leisure activities, and challenges with school and child care,” according to the report. “During such a period, it is perhaps unsurprising that alcohol sales increased in Wisconsin.”
That’s something Smetana worried about too: that increased isolation due to COVID could lead to excess drinking. “When people get depressed, they drink,” she noted.
While Jason Meekma, a Racine alderman and executive director of the substance abuse prevention nonprofit Focus on Community, said that getting people together again can help curb excessive substance use by replacing isolation with community, he said that anxiety linked to fears of the novel coronavirus could have an adverse effect.
“That sort of anxiety-inducing situation is one of the triggers for substance use and alcohol consumption,” Meekma said.
Still, the true cost of the pandemic on a substance use basis remains to be seen. Federal data show U.S. overdose deaths reached an estimated record high in 2020: 93,331 deaths, more than 20,000 more than the record set in 2019. Despite hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 related deaths, the percentage of U.S. deaths being attributed to an overdose still managed to grow from 1.9% to 2.8% in 2020.
Preliminary data from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation shows that there were 183 traffic fatalities and 170 in 2020, but that only five months into 2021 there were already 166 — on pace to far surpass prior years, according to reporting from Eau Claire-based WEAU. Alcohol is a factor in more than a fourth of all traffic-related deaths in the U.S.
“I think a lot of it is still to be determined. We are looking at more than just substance abuse but also just an unprecedented time with the pandemic,” Meekma said. “In the substance abuse prevention arena, we are ... thinking about the long-term impact of this, not just the adults partaking in this but the youth in these environments with increased use taking place.”
Meekma also noted that child abuse likely became more common during the pandemic. “It’s not just life and death. It’s long-term mental trauma.”
Public health costs may outweigh financial boon
The UW-Madison Population Health Institute reported in 2019 that binge drinking in Wisconsin costs almost $4 billion a year, or about $700 per state resident.
Wisconsin has the nation’s 48th-lowest beer tax rate, according to the Tax Foundation, a national tax policy think tank. The state ranks 43rd-lowest for wine tax rates and 41st-lowest for liquor.
“One consequence of this is that — despite the historic magnitude of this year’s revenue increase — its impact to state finances overall will be marginal,” according to the report. “However, the public health implications of increased alcohol consumption may be a greater concern.”
In 2019, Wisconsin ranked third in the nation in terms of the percentage of adults — 64.4% — who drink alcohol, higher than the neighboring states of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, according to the state Department of Health Services. Wisconsin adults who drink consume an average of 2.6 drinks per drinking occasion, higher than adults in other states.
A Forum report released last December found that alcohol-related crash fatalities had risen significantly despite there being fewer drivers on the road because of the pandemic. Full-year data wasn’t available, according to the report, but preliminary data showed that total vehicle miles were down in the state by about 25% in the second quarter of 2020 compared to 2019.
The report found that the number of alcohol-involved crash fatalities increased from 52 to 78 during the study period in 2020 compared with 2019.
In August 2019, the Forum reported that total deaths in Wisconsin related to drug and alcohol use had more than tripled since 1999. Such deaths include deaths in which alcohol is the primary cause, such as liver disease or alcohol poisoning, as well as fatal accidents in which the deceased person was intoxicated.
“In light of these and other considerations,” the report said, “it will be important to monitor alcohol sales closely to determine if the marked increase in sales and presumably consumption observed in fiscal year 2021 is a one-time byproduct of the pandemic or the beginning of a longer-term and possibly harmful trend.”
Year in review: The top Madison-area stories of 2020
It started out well enough. The Badgers were making a late-in-coming run at the Final Four. Hometown insurance behemoth American Family announced it was boosting its starting minimum wage to $20 an hour. Madison East Siders welcomed a new Pinney branch library.
The first two and a half months of the year feel like a different era, when news of a strange new virus infecting people in China was safely tucked away in the back pages of the newspaper and the heart-breaking images of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a 46-year-old Black man had yet to go viral.
Then came March and successive waves of closures, cancellations, lockdowns, furloughs, layoffs, infections and deaths. If the subsequent uprisings over the killing of George Floyd weren't enough to remind America that it has plenty of work to do to overcome racism, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha tragically emphasized the point. And a divisive presidential election carried the tone of the year at the end.
While it may not be a year to look back on with particular fondness, 2020 no doubt is one to remember. Here's a look back at some of the top stories in the Madison area as they occurred.
It marked the fourth consecutive loss in the Rose Bowl for UW, and the first time since 2013 that the program lost its final two games of the year.
Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said Sunday the victim who officers found in an apartment at 1905 McKenna Blvd. shortly after 2:30 p.m. Saturday was a 20-year-old African American male.
With the Green Bay defense failing to lay a hand on 49ers running back Raheem Mostert for much of the first half and the Aaron Rodgers-led offense committing two turnovers and failing to convert a third down yet again during a scoreless first 30 minutes, the Packers dug themselves a 27-0 halftime deficit on their way to a demoralizing 37-20 loss.
Gutierrez, superintendent of the school district in Seguin, Texas, was announced Friday as the Madison School Board's pick to lead the district.
Wisconsin has a confirmed case of the new coronavirus that emerged in China in December, bringing the U.S. total to 12 cases, health officials said Wednesday.
Officers found the victim, believed to be an adult male, in the 100 block of North Blair Street about 3:45 p.m. Saturday after receiving a report that a person had been shot.
This weekend's performances at the Alliant Energy Center will be the last with elephants in Dane County as a contract between the circus and the venue expires.
Tony Evers said he vetoed the legislation, which uses surplus revenue, because it doesn't invest in the state's schools.
Despite no Wisconsin cheeses finishing in the final top three, state producers dominated the competition, earning 45 gold medals out of 132 categories.
This decision is unprecedented for Wisconsin's largest university and taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus.
The closure order, to take effect no later than 5 p.m. on March 18, affects nearly 1 million Wisconsin children in grades K-12 in public and private schools.
One was a man in his 50s from Fond du Lac County; the other was a man in his 90s from Ozaukee County.
David A. Kahl, 53, is charged with first-degree intentional homicide.
The order represents a shift from the governor's position last week, when he said he did not plan on issuing such an order, which could likely shut down even more businesses across the state.
A jogger saw a man and a woman lying in a ditch at about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Most voting locations saw few lines and smooth operations. But other places, notably Milwaukee, experienced significant delays, chaos and conditions that made it impossible for some voters to cast a ballot.
Jill Karofsky's win over Dan Kelly cuts the court's conservative majority to 4-3, giving liberals a chance to take back control in 2023.
The U.S. Air Force announced the final selection of the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing, capping more than three years of study and deep community division over the planes, which come with the promise of jobs and new construction but also noise and pollution.
While applauded as a good first step, Democratic members, as well as public safety and health officials, have criticized the bill for not allocating more state funding to respond to the pandemic.
For 30 years, "Ms. Milele" was the publisher of UMOJA magazine and a prominent leader in Madison's black community. She was "short in stature but mighty in force."
Free community testing for COVID-19 started at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison on Monday morning.
Gov. Tony Evers and legislative Republicans will need to work quickly to come up with a replacement plan.
Authorities identified the victim of a Friday night homicide as Nang Yee Lee, who died Monday. The suspect is hospitalized.
The Vilas Zoo, Goodman Pool, beaches and movie theaters are among the places not opening yet.
The Madison rally protesting the Minneapolis death of George Floyd at the hands of police turned destructive Saturday evening, with members of a crowd breaking windows on State Street and stealing from businesses.
"It’s clear they have important process issues to work out," the candidate said.
Protesters tore down statues of Forward and a Union Civil War colonel, assaulted a state senator and set a small fire in a city building Downtown on Tuesday night after the arrest of a Black activist seen causing a disturbance in a restaurant earlier in the day.
School Board President Gloria Reyes said the decision to pull police from Madison's four main high schools is effective immediately.
Madison police are investigating a shooting Tuesday night at a Far East Side motel that left one man with life-threatening injuries.
The Madison School Board chose Carlton Jenkins, a superintendent of a suburban Twin Cities school district, over another finalist for the job. He starts Aug. 4.
As a Dane County public health order requiring face coverings in all indoor spaces outside the home took effect Monday, businesses offered mixed views on mandates, though for many retailers it was business as (the new) usual.
There was no update on the second victim from the shooting at Schroeder Road and Chapel Hill Road Saturday night.
Travis M. Christianson, 44, is tentatively charged with first-degree intentional homicide.
The Democratic National Convention Committee on Wednesday announced that Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, will accept the Democratic nomination from Delaware, the former vice president's home state.
The girl was in a car that was struck by gunfire late Tuesday morning on East Washington Avenue.
The conference decided — after meetings between presidents and athletic directors, and outcry from players, coaches, politicians and fans — to cancel the fall sports season and will attempt to move football to the spring semester.
"The video that came out of Kenosha is absolutely horrific. I don’t understand how people can watch it and not be here," one Madison protester said.
The fifth-seeded Heat finished off an upset of the NBA’s best regular-season team Tuesday, topping the Milwaukee Bucks 103-94 in Game 5 of their East semifinal series — while Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s reigning MVP, couldn’t play because of a sprained right ankle.
UW-Madison is pausing in-person instruction for at least two weeks and quarantining more than 2,200 students living in two dorms.
After 69 years as one of the leading attractions in the Wisconsin Dells area, the Tommy Bartlett Show announced Wednesday that it would close permanently after losing the 2020 season to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Police are not recommending charges against Bernstein.
The alternate care facility at State Fair Park in West Allis may start taking patients Thursday.
The two victims, ages 17 and 18, who were taken to a local hospital, suffered significant injuries but were expected to survive, acting Police Chief Vic Wahl said Saturday night.
A small crowd Downtown Saturday morning before the race was called turned into hundreds of people honking horns, cheering and waving signs after Biden was declared the winner, while some Trump supporters turned out in protest.
"We understand the eyes of the world will be on these Wisconsin counties over the next few weeks," Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said.
Isai Morocho’s father, Milton Morocho, said his son developed vomiting and diarrhea, apparently on Nov. 18.
The family took him to his regular doctor where he tested negative for COVID-19 and the medical staff said he likely had a stomach flu, Milton Morocho said. Isai didn’t have respiratory symptoms, his father said.
After the vomiting and diarrhea didn’t go away, the family took Isai to the doctor again, his father said. It’s not clear when, according to the interview. Providers checked his heart and lungs and said they were fine, Milton Morocho said. He said they didn’t do another COVID-19 test.
After his death, someone at the hospital told him Isai had pneumonia related to COVID-19.
A GoFundMe has been set up to help the family.
The jet from the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing at Truax Field in Madison crashed Tuesday night. The status of the pilot remains unknown.
St. Mary's and Meriter expect to get vaccine soon.
The flurry of activity caps off a tumultuous post-election saga in Wisconsin that has now concluded.
A look back at the year 2020 through the lens of Wisconsin State Journal photographers John Hart, Amber Arnold and Steve Apps