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The Pandemic Has Changed The Way Kansas City Drinks, But Age-Old Addiction Concerns Remain

Waldo Thai bar manager Darrell Loo has kept busy making carryout cocktails, even as the restaurant's dining room has been closed for months.
Alex Smith
Waldo Thai bar manager Darrell Loo has kept busy making carryout cocktails for the last few months, even as the restaurant's dining room has been closed.

Experts say a bit of extra drinking isn’t a problem for many people, but they recommend watching out for warning signs.

For many people, a glass of wine or a couple of cocktails have helped ease the fears and anxiety of life during a pandemic, and liquor laws have loosened up to allow businesses more ways to serve drinks.

“Drinking definitely was a way of coping with it, I would say that,” says Darrell Loo, bar manager at Waldo Thai. “People did drink a lot more when it happened. I, myself, did drink a lot more.”

Despite the lack of dine-in customers, Loo has stayed busy. He specializes in wine and drinks that pair with the spicy and sweet flavors of Thai food, and he’s been able to keep serving thanks to the temporary changes in liquor laws that allow him to sell his custom cocktails curbside.

“That actually helped a lot,” Loo says. “We can start bottling cocktails in a 5- to 12-ounce bottle then selling it together with the food. That’s been doing really well during this pandemic.”

Many state laws seemed to be waived overnight as stay-at-home orders were put into place, and many drinkers have quickly embraced trends that followed, such as more liquor delivery, virtual happy hours and online wine tasting.

Kansas City food writer Pete Dulin, who is also a chef at Fence Stile Vineyards and Winery, says the suspended laws and new ways of selling probably saved a lot of local businesses from going under.

“Being able to sell alcohol to go has definitely been a lifeline,” Dulin says. “I can’t imagine some business being able to survive without having to-go alcohol sales.”

Numbers show that the demand for alcohol during the pandemic has been huge. Alcohol sales jumped by 55% nationally during the third week of March, when many stay-at-home orders were put in place, according to Neilson data.

They’re remained higher than usual ever since.

All of this drinking may have been good for businesses. But it can be a problem for the people who are doing all the drinking, even those who haven’t had problems with drinking in the past.

Dr. Sarah Johnson, medical director of Landmark Recovery, an addiction treatment program based in Louisville, Kentucky, with locations in the Midwest says that, virtual events aside, the pandemic has nearly put an end to social drinking.

“It’s not as much going out and incorporating alcohol into a dinner or time spent with family or friends,” Johnson says. “Lots of people are sitting home drinking alone now, and historically, that’s been viewed as more of a high risk drinking behavior.”

There are some objective measures of problematic drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines heavy drinking as 15 or more drinks a week for a man or 8 or more for a woman.

But Johnson says that more important clues come from changes in behavior.

She explains that, for some people, a bit of extra drinking now and then isn’t a big deal.

“If they are still meeting all of their life obligations, like they are still getting up and making their Zoom meetings on time, and they’re not feeling so bad from drinking that they can’t do things, and taking care of their children and not having life problems, then it’s not a problem,” Johnson says.

But there are signs to watch out for, like big increases in the amount of drinking, concern from family or friends, changes in sleep and any time that drinking interferes with everyday life.

“It’s when people start to have problems in other areas of their life then it would be a signal that they are drinking too much and that it’s a problem,” Johnson says.

Johnson says that people who are unable to stop problematic drinking on their own should seek help.

Darrell Loo at Waldo Thai says that he has been concerned at times about people’s drinking, but he’s skeptical that the kind of higher end drinks offered by restaurants like his have led people to drinking more.

Loo and others in the Kansas City restaurant business are pushing for the carryout cocktails and other looser laws to stay in place even as restaurants slowly start to reopen.

“This will go on for a while. It’s going to change people’s habit,” Loo says. “People’s spending habit. People’s dining out habit. So there’s definitely a need to keep doing it.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated Dr. Johnson's title.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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