Avoiding ‘unintended consequences’: Manitoba Liquor Marts stay open amid COVID-19

Many have wondered why Manitoba Liquor Marts remain open during COVID-19, and the answer may have more to do with keeping emergency rooms clear than keeping home bars stocked during the pandemic.

At a press conference Wednesday, Manitoba’s chief public health officer was asked why he hasn’t ordered liquor stores to close while other businesses shutter to help stop the virus’ spread.

Dr. Brent Roussin said he’s mindful of “the unintended consequences” that may come from a decision to turn off the tap on Manitoba’s supply of alcohol.

“When we talk about health, we know that there’s much more to health than this virus,” he told reporters.

“We’re looking out for the health of all Manitobans, including those who have medical conditions related to substance use.”

Withdrawl, seizures, psychiatric complications

Experts have told Global News keeping liquor stores open may help make sure people living with alcohol abuse issues don’t add to the stress already facing the healthcare system.

“Alcohol dependency can be psychologically and physiologically. If the supply is cut off for that population of people, it can be potentially catastrophic,” said Elaine Hyshka, a researcher and assistant professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta.

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“Not everyone with alcohol use disorder who abstains from drinking will experience medical complications, but for the smaller proportion that does, it can be life-threatening.

“They can go into withdrawal, which can cause seizures and other different psychiatric complications.”

According to numbers from the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction (CCSUA) 3.2 per cent of the Canadian population has reported alcohol abuse or dependence.

In 2017, the rate of hospitalizations caused entirely by alcohol in Canada was comparable to the rate of hospitalizations for heart attacks, according to data compiled by CCSUA.

‘A lot of effects of this pandemic’

While Roussin didn’t specifically say that’s the reason liquor stores in Manitoba are staying open, he did say addiction — including drug addiction — is playing a role in his decision making.

For instance, he said the province is making sure it has adequate supplies of naloxone over concerns social distancing strategies may affect drug supply.

“We know that there is a there’s a lot of effects of this pandemic and a slowdown,” he said.

“Certainly in any consideration about liquor availability, all of those thoughts will be going into that before we make any changes.”

As of Wednesday Manitoba Liquor Stores remained open, with extra precautions taken to help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, including asking customers with flu-like symptoms to stay away, an increase in cleaning and the suspension of in-store sampling.

Stores are also offering a delivery service with next-day home delivery available online.

And for now Roussin said he has no plans to order liquor stores to close.

“They will remain open,” he said Wednesday.

“But we are reviewing those types of things constantly and all of the unintended consequences of any choice we make, we look at very closely before we implement it.”

Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines recommend no more than 10 drinks a week for women (no more than two a day), and no more than 15 drinks a week for men (no more than three a day).

— With files from Rachael D’Amore and The Canadian Press

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