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Local liquor store operators talk about being ‘essential’ during COVID-19


When the curtain of the COVID-19 business shutdowns first fell, Virks Liquor owner Aman Kaur witnessed something she has seldom seen at her Janesville store’s drive-up window.

A man nearly filled his pickup truck bed with 30-packs of beer. Seventeen 30-packs (that’s 510 cans of beer), to be exact.

That happened during a frenzy of panic buying that hit in mid-March as word came down the state would force many businesses to shut down amid a response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, Kaur said, the frenzy has eased as customers began to realize there is enough beer and liquor to go around.

Liquor stores have continued to remain open and are considered “essential” businesses under Gov. Tony Evers’s COVID-19 orders. They’re among businesses and retailers allowed to operate under guidelines the state said are intended to maintain public health and well-being and to preserve core functions of statewide and local economies.

Angela Major 

Riley Hamilton talks on the phone while browsing Wednesday at Grain N Grape liquor store in Janesville.

In Janesville, liquor store owners such as Kaur said they’re catering to a clientele in the midst of a public health emergency and an economic storm that has shaken up every facet of their lives—including such normally simple decisions as picking up a six-pack of beer at the store.

Some are people looking to break up the doldrums after weeks of exile inside their homes during a safer-at-home order the state says could remain in place at least through the end of May.

As some customers grabbed bottles of Tito’s vodka and sixers of New Glarus beer, Grain N Grape owner Balwant Singh stood next to a stock of Franzia wine-in-a-box stacked as tall as a man at the end of an aisle.

Singh said the box wine is selling at a much brisker pace than normal at his liquor store on the city’s east side. Bulk buying is one strategy people are using to limit their liquor shopping trips to avoid possible exposure to COVID-19, he said.

“They get the large box of wine, a couple boxes, and they don’t have to come back to get more of that as soon,” Singh said.

Kaur’s Virks Liquor is one of the few stores inside the city that operates a drive-up window for alcohol sales. She said there’s an uptick in customers using the drive-up so they don’t have enter the store.

“They say what they want—a 30 pack of beer or a bottle of wine—and it comes through the window like a food drive-up order. The window’s very popular right now,” she said.

Angela Major 

A customer purchases beer Wednesday at the Grain N Grape liquor store in Janesville.

As the pandemic rolls on, Badger Spirits owner Alice Blue said her south side liquor store has seen a trend of bulk buying recently replaced by customers branching out with single bottles of higher-end or specialty liquors to make special mixed drinks at home.

She said people are looking for a slice of comfort and familiarity in their lives during an unstable time.

“We’ve been selling a lot of chocolate martini stuff lately. Some of your high end things are going a little faster, a lot of tequila goes out, I think that might have been because we’d had a little bit of warmer spring weather and people started thinking about margaritas.”

Some new clients, liquor store owners said, are displaced regulars of local taverns ordered shuttered under the state’s temporary public shutdown. That’s brought anomalies in customer behavior that don’t jibe with the state’s temporary ban on public gatherings.

Over the last week, Janesville police records show, three liquor sellers were cited for failing to adhere to state social distancing requirements. The problem, according to reports, is rooted in customers congregating in close quarters at liquor store and gas station electronic gambling machines.

Kaur, whose store doesn’t appear to have electronic gambling, said “it makes sense” that during the pandemic local authorities would dissuade people from playing store gambling machines because the games “are really not essential.”

“I think those customers might be people who would normally be bar customers who are used to sitting there in the bar drinking for hours and playing the gambling games. You’re limiting a store to 10 people in a small area ... but those gambling machines can be set up pretty close together with people playing a game very close to one another,” Kaur said.

Singh said he tries to limit his store’s customer flow to no more than seven people at a time at Grain N Grape. The clerk at the sales counter now is working in a plastic-shielded terrarium similar to checkout lines at supermarkets.

All the liquor store operators interviewed said the biggest challenge is constantly disinfecting the stores’ beer cooler handles, which are touched by dozens of customers an hour.

Blue’s crimped her regular hours some. She said she’s trying to operate under a single shift because a few of her employees are staying home. She said they’re uncomfortable working a checkout counter during a pandemic.

Singh said he’s had a few recent break-ins at his store, the most recent one this week. According to Janesville police reports, officers investigating a break-in alarm at the store found a set of boots and a ball cap at the scene but no culprit.

Singh believes the state’s decision to deem liquor stores as essential serves to stanch possible public disorder by people who might become frustrated they can’t buy liquor.

Singh also believes that if the state had abruptly shut down liquor stores during the pandemic, it might have created an unintended burden on health care systems if people with alcohol addiction became ill from physical withdrawal.

A Rock County Health Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions from The Gazette about alcohol addiction and potential short-term health consequences of withdrawal.

The spokeswoman wrote in an email that the health department has received no rationale from the state about the decision to deem liquor stores as essential businesses.

Blue said she wasn’t tuned into whether there were lobbying efforts by the beer and liquor industry to keep liquor stores open during the pandemic. She said her objective, like all businesses operating during the pandemic, is to try to stay open and pay the bills.

“Why are fast foods essential? Why are car dealers essential? Why are gun shops essential? I question the ‘essential’ decision on liquor stores and other things myself. I do,” Blue said. “But the state says we can be open, and so we’re open. You can look at all of this as a hard lockdown, but it’s really not. This really is not a hard lockdown in this state.”

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Rock County, Janesville pay some workers to stay home on call

Rock County and the city of Janesville are paying some employees who can’t do their work from home to stay home but remain on call.

County and city officials say they believe that’s the best way to keep such employees safe from COVID-19 and still provide such essential services as water, wastewater processing, public health, garbage pickup and road repair.

Rock County Administrator Josh Smith said he understands such a setup might seem unfair to taxpayers who have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, but he said it is necessary to keep government services operating.

He said the county didn’t want to have to cut jobs held by residents.

“The main difference (between public- and private-sector employees) is that there is an expectation that essential services the county provides continue to be provided,” Smith said. “One of the main reasons for this system was to continue having essential staff available for recall if needed.”

County and city officials said they can’t cut back their services the way private businesses can during a virus outbreak.

City rotates workers

Each week, half of the Janesville Public Works Department’s 81 field workers go to work as usual, said Paul Woodard, public works director.

The other half are paid to stay home and be on call. They are not allowed to leave their homes during work hours, Woodard said.

Some city employees do online training or other tasks at home when possible, but many public works employees do hands-on work that can’t be done at home, Woodard said.

He said city officials want to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 that have crippled businesses across the country.

He cited the Birds Eye food processing plant in Darien as an example. Birds Eye suspended operations until Monday, April 27, after about 20 employees tested positive for COVID-19.

“Also, when a food processing plant has an outbreak, they can send their workers home and close the plant,” Woodard said in a follow-up email to The Gazette. “If we had an outbreak, say, at the wastewater plant, we can’t shut it down. We have to keep it operational 24/7.”

When asked why the city chose to pay employees who are on call, Woodard said officials thought it was the “most fair to the employees.”

City workers have to stay home while on call, which keeps them from mingling in the community and potentially getting the disease, Woodard said. The alternating work weeks minimize exposure and keep workers in reserve so the city can continue to provide services.

“I think we are doing the right thing,” he said. “We are planning for the worst-case scenario and keeping people safe.”

The public works department has about 140 employees. Of those, 81 are on the alternating schedule that started March 23, Woodard said.

Some wastewater workers have been called in from home to perform tasks with little contact from other crew members, he said.

Other public works employees are working from home or alternating between home and City Hall, Woodard said.

Public works is the only city department using the alternating schedule, Woodard said.

He said the city is taking other measures to keep field workers safe, including sending only one person in a maintenance truck at a time, maintaining separation on a work site, doing more cleaning and giving workers protective equipment.

County avoiding layoffs

Rock County’s work policy was designed to avoid laying off employees who must work on-site, such as those at the county highway shop, Smith said.

Similar to Janesville employees, the county workers are split into two groups. The first group works a full 40-hour week, while the second group stays home on call, Smith said.

The groups swap the next week. Both groups collect their regular paychecks.

Under the plan, workers can use up to 80 hours of special on-call paid time off. When those hours are gone, they must use vacation time to stay home.

“We didn’t want them at work and possibly passing the virus to each other,” Smith said. “They were rotating that way for a couple of weeks to use that leave bucket and not spread the virus among each other in the shop.”

He said employees might begin returning to work next week, so 40 hours will remain “in the bank” in case COVID-19 cases ramp up again in the future.

Smith said the schedule allows the county to keep employees safe while avoiding a spike in unemployment claims and the complications of trying to get laid-off employees back to work.

“They’ve had work to do, so it’s a difficult decision to keep them home,” Smith said of the highway shop employees. “They have a lot of work to do. Whether it’s patching potholes or construction jobs, there’s no shortage of work to do.”