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KEVIN LEININGER: Fortunately, ‘essential’ booze is there to help us cope with COVID-19

Charles Keen, clerk at the Belmont Beverage store on North Anthony, makes a sale this week to Sarah Whitsett. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Ian Welch
Frank Bougher
Kevin Leininger

Three days before Gov. Eric Holcomb’s March 23 order requiring Hoosiers not engaged in essential travel or services to stay home, my boss handed me a letter that was amazingly clairvoyant.

“To whom it may concern,” it began. “Persons engaged in the dissemination of news . . . are exempt from ‘shelter at home’ or curfews because . . . government at all levels recognize the vital role media plays in keeping the public informed.”

But here we are, several days later, and not a single cop has pulled me over to ask why I’m still driving around. What good is being special if you can’t show somebody the official proof?

On the other hand, judging from the number of cars still on the road, just about everybody seem to be exceptional. According to Holcomb’s order, which was based on guidance from the federal Department of Homeland Security, essential services also include such no-brainers as groceries, drug stores, food production, gas stations, schools, transportation, manufacturing, medical care and many government services. And, having just restored the hot water at my house after three days of cold showers, I can assure you that the “critical trades” really are critical.

But isn’t that just the point? If your livelihood is at stake or you need something — or think you do — it’s pretty important if not downright essential. Just picture what my already shaggy head will look like in a few weeks if I can’t get a real haircut. But my barber is shut down, as are theaters, gyms, zoos and, except for carry-out, restaurants and bars whether they follow the same COVID-prevention standards as essential services or not.

The arbitrariness of it all is enough to drive a person to drink. Fortunately, because Hoosier liquor stores are deemed “essential,” they’re open for business as usual — and good business at that.

“We’re out of Budweiser Light in bottles. Somebody came in and bought 15 cases,” said Ian Welch, a clerk at the Belmont Beverage store on North Anthony Boulevard. “It’s great for me and others that we still have jobs. It says something about our culture, and how laws are made.”

Welch was right on both counts. With a record number of Americans filing for their first unemployment benefits last week — about 3.3 million — people who are still working are more than essential: They’re blessed. And if you don’t think liquor influences Indiana politics, consider this: On the same day Holcomb issued his stay-at-home directive, he signed another executive order loosening prohibitions on the carry-out sale of booze.

“Closure of in-person services at dining entities effectively prohibits the sale of alcohol by holders of on-premises permits, resulting in financial hardships,” Holcomb wrote, reflecting both sound motive and logic. After all, why should carry-out stores like Belmont be able to profit from the sale of alcohol when restaurants and bars can’t through no fault of their own?

But logic is a stubborn thing, because it can be applied broadly — perhaps even more broadly than intended. As Welch noted, groceries sell alcohol too — so why shouldn’t Belmont do the same?

Then again, Belmont and many other liquor stores also sell cigars, and Welch’s store has sold a lot of them lately, too. That’s something Frank Bougher can no longer do, because Riegel’s Pipe and Tobacco shops have been deemed non-essential.

“We’ll comply (with closure), but it’s tough,” Bougher said. “It’s difficult to understand. It’s unfair that businesses that duplicate our services get to stay open. We’ll never catch up to the revenue we’ll lose.”

I’m not criticizing Holcomb or other public officials who are doing their best to contain a new and potentially deadly virus. But the truth is that the country can’t afford to stay on lock down forever, and the degree to which Americans are willing to make personal sacrifices for the common good will be determined in large part by the wisdom, fairness and consistency of the expectations placed upon them.

But, one way or another, I’m going to need booze and cigars. Essential or not, I’m not about to work 24 hours a day. How else am I supposed to avoid going stir crazy?

Missed it by that much

In my recent column about planned improvements to the Aviation Museum at Fort Wayne International Airport, I left a letter out of the email people can use to get more information or offer help or donations. If you want to contact the project’s leader, Greg Bosk, email him at fwaair@gmail.com.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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