May 12, 2020

Drinking in the Times of COVID 19

As we all know now, the COVID 19 pandemic has radically altered most facets of our daily lives.  Social and physical distancing has changed the way we drink alcohol as well.  Next to that failed experiment we called “prohibition,” COVID 19 represents the biggest natural experiment related to drinking in modern times.

How has drinking changed?  As the press has widely reported alcohol sales have increased by as much as 55% since the lockdowns began. That alcohol consumption has ostensibly increased is hardly surprising given that two of the main motives people commonly cite for drinking are stress reduction and to offset boredom. COVID 19 and our responses to mitigate it created “ideal” conditions for a spike in drinking.

With social distancing, meeting peers at bars for happy hour, hosting wine-soaked dinner parties, or enjoying a few cold brews at a picnic, was replaced by drinking at home.  Virtual happy hours became a “thing” overnight.  Parents who otherwise wouldn’t socialize over drinks with their college-aged kids, began to have family cocktail hours. Social media blew up with memes depicting morning coffee morphing into midday cocktail hours.  

As we begin to ease social distancing with the prospect of at least another round of the virus and mitigation efforts next fall or winter, what does this all mean for the future of social drinking?  Based on existing science, we can make some educated guesses on the COVID 19 impacts on the trajectory of drinking. 

First, as we return to the new normal, it is likely drinking levels will return back to pre-lockdown levels. Research shows that environmental conditions and opportunity are drivers of drinking behavior.  For instance, once heavy drinking college students enter the work world, their drinking becomes less frequent and heavy. In normal times the responsibilities of daily life will preclude those daily COVID 19 happy hours for most people.

From a health and well-being standpoint, it would be easy to argue that virtual happy hours are a largely positive development in drinking behavior. For many people, the need to connect with others during a common and stressful experience coupled with the fact geographic proximity was no longer a barrier, virtual happy hours provided an opportunity to reconnect with old friends or relatives living elsewhere and bond over a much-needed drink. Beyond social bonding, these happy hours encouraged “tippling” (the art of alcohol fueled conversation), as the mechanics of Zoom both force active listening and time-limited drinking.  Of course, the risk of drinking in one’s own home also reduces the risks of drunk driving and other acute alcohol problems.  Whether virtual happy hours will continue is unknown, but they can teach us a less drunken and more social way to enjoy alcohol.

While COVID 19 will continue to alter much public behavior, it is not clear how drinking in bars will change or whether bars and clubs, as we know them, will survive.  On the one hand, bars can be the source of alcohol-related problems like fights, noise, drunk driving and the like.  On the other hand, bars, pubs, and tap houses—especially smaller independent venues—serve important social functions beyond providing entertainment and contributing to the economy. Such places, as the sociologist Ray Oldenburg argues, are important “third places” (home and work being the first two) that enhance a sense of social connection and community. While many of my colleagues in public health might argue the loss of all bars would be a good thing, I maintain that on the whole, losing smaller community waterholes would be a net loss for society. How public drinking evolves in the age of pandemics remains to be determined, but the shift to smaller bars and pubs with less crowd capacity might be a good thing to emerge from the pandemic.

In the end, COVID 19 illustrates that alcohol and drinking is still deeply ingrained and important in our culture. While its excessive use contributes to myriad health and social problems, lighter drinking can provide social cohesion, comfort and joy for large portions of adults.  My guess is when historians finally get around to looking at everything that happened in the pandemic years from now, a small footnote will mention virtual happy hours and how we drank away the time in the days of COVID 19.

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