Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation in October that extends the Sunday...

Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation in October that extends the Sunday sales hours at New York liquor and wine stores. Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY — During the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic recovery, the state expanded access to alcohol in laws aimed at saving restaurants, taverns, liquor stores and convenience stores. But addiction experts said it also gave life to what they call a raging epidemic of alcoholism.

“The anxiety and depression has persisted post-COVID,” said Jeffrey L. Reynolds, president and CEO of Family & Children’s Association in Garden City, who said he's seen an increase in the number of people seeking help. “Everyone thought it would go away. The perfect storm of alcohol abuse hasn’t passed at this point. If anything, it’s gotten worse.” 

This year, the American Psychological Association called alcohol abuse a hidden epidemic quietly raging nationwide, causing more traffic crashes, increased violence and assault, fractured families and lost jobs — taking more lives than fentanyl overdoses. 

Alcohol contributes to 140,000 deaths each year, compared with opioid overdoses, which was estimated at 80,411 in 2021, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Addiction experts say state laws expanding access to alcohol to help the restaurant and liquor industry also gave life to what they call a raging epidemic of alcoholism.
  • Alcohol contributes to 140,000 deaths each year, compared with opioid overdoses, which was estimated at 80,411 in 2021, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Temporary measures ordered to keep restaurants and bars in business during pandemic have continued. They include allowing bars to open Sunday mornings and allowing alcohol sales in theaters.

During the pandemic’s beginning in early 2020, then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered some temporary measures to keep restaurants in business. The executive orders overturned some nearly century-old liquor laws that sought to curb alcohol consumption. In contrast, Cuomo’s executive orders included allowing alcohol-to-go sales and allowance for far more outdoor seating under a liquor license to help keep restaurants and their employees working.

These and other temporary measures, however, have continued long after the height of the pandemic. They include allowing bars to open Sunday mornings for fans of European football and, last month, for the Buffalo Bills playing in London, while another recent law allowed alcohol sales in theaters.

“Cheers, New York!” Gov. Kathy Hochul tweeted Oct. 16 with an image of her raising a glass of white wine in the Capitol’s historic Red Room. “We’re modernizing our alcohol sales laws to help our breweries, distilleries and other small businesses grow, while popping open more options for New Yorkers.”

She was toasting the latest of several laws adopted by the State Legislature in the last three years that increase sale and access to alcohol. Two days earlier, Hochul had signed into law measures allowing liquor and wine stores to expand Sunday hours, to 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The previous hours of operation were noon to 9 p.m. and allowed retail sale of beer all day on Sundays by eliminating the historic prohibition on sales between 3 and 8 a.m.

In April, the 2023 state budget had made permanent the popular pandemic practice of alcohol-to-go sales from restaurants, and last year a law allowed caterers to get licenses to serve liquor at events.

These and related measures worked.

“During the pandemic, the things that were done for flexibility, drinks-to-go in particular, were very, very important,” said Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association. He said post-pandemic measures also have been helpful, but “we need more.”

On the powerful lobby’s agenda: cocktails in a can, which could be a new twist on the age-old practice by some tavern patrons of buying a six-pack of beer to go at closing time, Wexler said.

Kent Sopris, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, agreed. He said measures like the one his group successfully lobbied for this year to end the prohibition of beer sales from 3 to 8 a.m. on Sundays are “consumer-friendly measures.”

“We thought it was a great idea, especially in the time when people don’t work set hours,” Sopris said. “Say someone who stops by and grabs a beer at 5 a.m. Who knows where they are in their day?”

Neither Sopris nor Wexler said they were aware of any increased alcohol abuse as a result of the new laws.

“No, I haven't heard of anybody," Sopris said. "It's an issue I take very seriously, but no one has talked to me about it."

Hochul and the leaders of the Democratic majorities of the Senate and Assembly didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Restaurants, taverns and convenience stores are among Albany’s biggest lobbying clients, state records show. From January through August this year alone, the Empire State Restaurant & Tavern Association spent $65,333 lobbying for a wide range of issues, while the Association of Convenience Stores spent more than $66,000.

In addition, the Restaurant Political Action Committee of the New York State Restaurant Association contributed $224,800 to state and local candidates’ campaigns since 2000, with $32,750 of that contributed since the pandemic began in 2020, according to state Board of Elections records. Wexler contributed $135,949 to state and local candidates’ campaigns since 2010, according to state Board of Elections records.

The Convenience Political Action Committee also contributed $425,892 to state and local campaigns since 2003, and $82,100 of it since the pandemic began in 2020, records showed.

“I think progress is good,” Sopris said. “I think opening some of these 100-year-old laws is a good thing for the state.”

The federal Community Preventive Services Task Force, which conducts research for the CDC, recommends states reduce excessive alcohol use by decreasing the accessibility and affordability of alcohol and "maintaining limits on the days or hours that alcohol can legally be sold or served." 

Since 2019, automobile crashes in New York in which police said alcohol was a cause or contributing factor jumped 28%, to 252 fatal crashes last year, according to testimony to the State Legislature in September by the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research. The group, affiliated with the state University at Albany, provides research to state government on highway safety, but doesn’t draw conclusions on causes.

On Long Island, State Police Troop L, which covers both counties, said troopers made 1,181 driving-while-intoxicated arrests last year, compared with 993 in 2019. 

“This is a one-sided conversation in that it is all about business and not at all about public health and safety,” said David Jernigan, a professor of health law and management at Boston University.

“We are continuing to see that a lot of the things were put in as temporary measures and a lot have become permanent with no health impact study done,” said Jernigan, who has extensively published research on alcohol consumption trends.

He said studies repeatedly have shown lengthening the hours of operation of bars triggers increases in crimes and other problems. “This isn’t rocket science,” he said. “And it is constantly ignored by policymakers because the loudest voices on the issue are in business.”

Reynolds also questioned the wisdom of some of the new laws.

“Most movies are 90 minutes long,” he said. “If you can’t make it through a 90-minute movie without a drink, what does that say about you? … It seems counterintuitive to go out to the movies with our family, have a couple of drinks, and drive home.”

The state has, however, also increased funding in recent years for the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports. The current budget added $542.6 million to the office for a total of $1.5 billion. The state Division of Budget stated the top three program priorities for the funding didn't include alcohol treatment, but were aimed at opioid treatment. Hochul changed the name in 2019 as opioid overdoses ravaged the state and nation. The agency had previously been called the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

Jernigan and Reynolds welcome the state’s increase in funding for alcohol addiction programs, but said it doesn’t attack the root problem.

“Treatment is an ethical responsibility of the policymakers,” Jernigan said. “But we will never treat our way out of this problem.”

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