As America continues its struggle to contain the Coronavirus, state governments are busy issuing—and extending—stay-at-home orders and other protective public health measures. One of the key features of these orders involves defining whether certain businesses are essential. Most states have rightly realized that alcohol retail, like groceries, should be classified as essential, thereby allowing businesses like restaurants, breweries, distilleries, and liquor stores to continue operating during the crisis.

Then there’s Pennsylvania, where a near-farcical situation is now playing itself out in real time. The Keystone State, which was already notorious among its residents for the system of state-operated liquor stores it operates, announced on St. Patrick’s Day that it would close all its Fine Wine & Good Spirits outlets for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. The decision immediately sparked an outcry, with most observers pointing out a simple reality: Americans will inevitably want to purchase alcoholic beverages while they are stuck at home.

In the wake of the store closures, stories abounded of Pennsylvanians traveling across state lines to neighboring states to buy distilled spirits and wine. Stores in New Jersey became so flooded with Pennsylvania residents that some were forced to temporarily close. The same thing happened in other neighboring states, including Delaware, Maryland, and Ohio. The sad reality is that this influx of unexpected customers made social distancing recommendations impossible to enforce in many of these surrounding stores, meaning that Pennsylvania’s decision put more Americans at risk for contracting the Coronavirus.

Perhaps in an attempt to acknowledge the error of its ways, Pennsylvania’s government announced last week that it would start offering online sales orders and delivery of its spirits. Well, sort of. Once you check the fine print, it turns out that the state’s much-ballyhooed announcement reads more like an article from The Onion than anything resembling real life.

Due to “overwhelming demand,” the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board clarified that it would only accept “a controlled number of orders per day,” and that orders would only be accepted at certain times. Using a system that it refers to as “randomized access,” the PLCB’s online sales portal will open only during finite times of the day. And when will those times be, you might ask? You’ll have to guess! The state refuses to provide any guidance for when sales will be accepted.

When asked by Penn Live to explain how the randomized access system works, the best a PLCB spokesperson could provide was a jumble of bureaucratic speak:

In the interest of maintaining the integrity of the protections we put around the site to avoid overwhelming the site with high traffic, preventing order abuse and to prolong access throughout the day, we’ll refrain from offering further technical explanations or detail.

In response to a follow-up question asking whether there were any steps Pennsylvanians could take to increase their odds of placing an online order, the PLCB was more blunt:

No. We just ask that customers be patient and understand that the PLCB is doing the best it can under extraordinary circumstances to balance consumer demand and public health.

So, in an effort to rectify one bad idea (closing liquor stores entirely), Pennsylvania has merely pivoted to something even more absurd: Trying to turn off the Internet at random times of the day. Given these limitations, it’s unlikely that the PCLB’s online ordering rollout will stop state residents from crossing state lines for alcohol.

Instead of doubling down on this Theater of the Absurd, Pennsylvania should take a lesson from the many other governments around the country that are liberalizing and streamlining their alcohol retailing rules during COVID.

Even if the state is unable to sort out its woeful tech issues anytime soon, there’s several straightforward steps it could take to alleviate the situation. One option would be to allow restaurants and bars in the state the ability to sell their inventory of spirits and wine. Locales like Washington, D.C. are already allowing this, and it’s a straightforward way to vastly increase retailing options for alcohol almost overnight. In fact, renowned drinks writer Lew Bryson recently circulated a petition urging this course of action—so far, Bryson’s effort has led to nearly 6,000 signatures in just a few days.

Another option would be to re-open the Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores in a controlled, limited fashion. Even other control states like Virginia have kept their stores open, albeit while implementing appropriate social distancing guidelines and limiting the number of customers inside at any one time.

Ultimately, the real result of Pennsylvania’s ineptitude might be a long-overdue re-thinking of the state’s entire regulatory system for alcohol. Control states have proven to be much less nimble when responding to COVID and its impact on alcohol sales than states with private licensing systems, and the justifications for state-run alcohol stores in 21st Century America are rapidly dwindling.

The entire course of human history has taught us that humans will find ways to obtain alcohol, and the best policy response—by far—is to provide safe, readily-available options for doing so. Whenever governments veer too far in the other direction, they incentivize individuals to take riskier steps to obtain booze. And, to the surprise of no one who was paying attention, that’s exactly what has happened in Pennsylvania.

Image credit:  tristan tan

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