When the shelter-in-place order went into effect in the Bay Area in mid-March, small business CEO Keith Nothacker quickly shifted his 14-person operation from an office in downtown San Francisco to most of the staff working remotely from home.
Right away, Nothacker noticed a slight change in his behavior. He was drinking more alcohol during the workweek than normal. Nothing alarming, he said, just a glass of wine here, a cocktail there, behavior he used to reserve for “Friday night happy hour or going out to dinner on the weekends.” When he mentioned this to colleagues, they noted a similar change and wondered if it was just them or was everyone drinking more?
Tracking alcohol consumption during a pandemic
It’s a question Nothacker’s team is uniquely positioned to analyze, since his company, BACtrack, makes smartphone-connected breathalyzers. Users who track their blood-alcohol content (BAC) with one of BACtrack’s handheld devices can sync readings with an app, then share their general location and blood-alcohol content levels anonymously with the company. (The company notes that this is a feature people have to take extra steps to turn on and that, by default, no BACtrack settings track user patterns, even anonymously.) Nothacker said the comparison of data from “thousands of people” pre- and post-shelter-in-place shows Americans are drinking more. A lot more.
“Sure enough, when we look at the before-and-after data for people sheltering in place across the country, we’ve never seen such a clear-cut dramatic change from one day to the next,” Nothacker said.
The biggest one-day leap in alcohol consumption the first day after the shelter-in-place orders were issued in each state was in Washington state, followed by North Carolina and Arizona:
- In Washington, average BACs skyrocketed 426% the first day.
- In North Carolina, average BACs shot up 200%.
- In Arizona, average BACs increased 160%.
- In Massachusetts, average BACs increased 65%.
- In Ohio, average BACs increased 83% the first day after the shelter-in-place order was issued and 86% the following day.
The other major finding is people are drinking a lot more during the week, most notably Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and alcohol consumption is actually down during the weekends:
- In California, weekday average BACs are up 47%, and weekend average BACs are down 51%.
- In Chicago, weekday average BACs are up 52%, and weekend average BACs are down 26%.
- In Washington, weekday average BACs are up 72%, and weekend average BACs are down 16%.
- In Arizona, weekday average BACs are up 63%; weekend average BACs are unchanged.
- In San Diego, weekday average BACs are up 57%, and weekend average BACs are down 19%.
“For me, all the different days of the week blend together now,” Nothacker said. “There are no special occasions. Monday’s shelter in place is the same as Friday’s now.”
BACtrack’s findings match other public reporting: surging alcohol delivery sales, the rise of video happy hours and Nielsen reports of a 55% increase in U.S. sales of alcoholic beverages in the week ending March 21.
“I’m embarrassed to say that the happiest day of my quarantine was when I found out the liquor store would do curbside,” said Robin Raskin, founder of Living in Digital Times and creator of the Live and Free website. “I’ve increased drinking a lot – never before sundown – but I’ve quit doing any mixers. Vodka is my evening water.”
“We had a ‘weekend or special dates only’ policy before … better for health/immune systems. Now almost every night, we have whatever drink/wine goes with our meal. Takes the edge off … but the limit is one cocktail or two glasses of wine,” my friend Jennifer Fox wrote when I queried my Facebook friends to see if they were drinking more.
“I’m a light drinker usually because it triggers my migraines (like approx 1-2 drinks a month),” wrote my former colleague, Laura Kutch Brandolini. “But as we have more and more virtual happy hours to stay connected with friends and family, joining in with some White Claws helps me feel included.”
Social media feeds are filled with “quarantini” memes. Celebrities from Martha Stewart and Ina Garten to Ryan Reynolds and Pink post about their new weekday drinking norms. My other mom-friends and I share a text or two nearly every day joking about it, and I, too, have shifted from a weekend-only drinker to sipping one or two spiked seltzers almost every night.
For some people, a rise in weekday alcohol consumption could be more life-threatening than the coronavirus.
A person who asked that I keep her name out of this story said she belongs to Alcoholics Anonymous, and since shelter-in-place, “I have been attending meetings by Zoom with my usual daily morning group. But bandwidth limits are often an issue. Given that many, if not all support groups (for all issues from alcohol or drug abuse to trauma) rely deeply on interpersonal connection and also service to others in need, a lot of people like me still feel stymied in terms of participating in as full a recovery program as we’re accustomed to.”
Tech tools supporting sobriety
There are about 2.1 million people, as of 2018, who attend AA meetings around the world, and though many have moved online, it doesn’t work for everyone, especially during a time of crisis. “Think about the other 23 hours in the day where someone may be struggling,” said MJ Gottlieb, co-founder of an app called Loosid, a social network for sobriety. “What are people supposed to do then?”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Gottlieb said, there’s been nearly a 110% increase in weekly active users and a nearly 2,000% increase in groups-joined activity. Loosid is free to use and gives people access to immediate hotlines 24/7, along with “a community of nearly 60,000 members,” Gottlieb said. “You don’t have to be alone. You just need to say those three words: ‘I need help.’ “
Google, Facebook and Twitter partnered with the nonprofit Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies and launched an online resource hub for people with substance use disorders called Tech Together. The site helps people battling addiction and the associated stigma.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.