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Citing Pandemic, Monongalia County Restricts Liquor Sales To In-State Residents

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Ken Miller
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AP file photo

Updated Sunday, April 5, 2020 at 6:00 p.m.

Citing an influx of Pennsylvania residents crossing into West Virginia, the Monongalia County Board of Health has announced it is limiting liquor sales to in-state residents only. The order was issued Saturday, Aptil 4, and went into effect at noon the same day. Other border counties have begun to adopt similar policies. 

More than two weeks earlier, on March 19, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolfe ordered that all state liquor stores be closed through an executive order.
As of Saturday at 8 p.m., Pennsylvania is reporting 10,017 cases of COVID-19, while West Virginia officials have confirmed 282 cases — 40 of which are in Monongalia County. Local officials say the new restriction is aimed at stopping interstate spread. 

Monongalia County Order Limits Who Can Buy, How Liquor Stores Can Operate

The measure puts various restrictions on the sale of liquors in Monongalia County and outlines specific practices retailers must follow — all under the threat of the closure of a business.

“As a means of diminishing any increase of Corona virus [sic] in Monongalia County from individuals arriving from out of state, it is the recommendation of Monongalia County Health Department and its officer that liquor sales be limited to only West Virginia residents,” the Monongalia County order states. 

The Monongalia County Health Department order cites West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s state of emergency related to the coronavirus pandemic, which was issued on March 24. 

In addition to limiting who can purchase liquor in Monongalia County, the order also says liquor stores can only have essential employees present while they are open, enforce social distancing measures (including maintaining six feet between customers and staff at all times, and use floor markings at cash registers and other places where individuals congregate) and limit the number of persons in a store (including staff and customers) to ten at a time when open. 

The order also calls on businesses to provide adequate hand-washing stations, frequently disinfect surfaces that may be touched by anyone’s hands and place an employee outside of the business to check for a valid form of identification proving a West Virginia residence and eligibility to buy alcohol. 

Under the order, liquor sales in Monongalia County are limited to three bottles per customer per day. It also threatens the closure of businesses should they not comply with the order. 

Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom told West Virginia Public Broadcasting his county’s new directive stems from communications with public health officials in the state’s Eastern Panhandle, where a cluster of COVID-19 cases was identified Friday. 

Later Friday, Gov. Justice issued an executive order specific to three counties in that region in hopes to stop the spread of the virus. 

“What they found out was that — because of several box stores having major sales there, and also due to people crossing the [state] line going into liquor stores — they had an explosion of cases,” Bloom said about what he and others heard from Eastern Panhandle officials. “They wanted to warn us ahead of time so we could try and stop it before it happens here.”

Bloom said Monongalia County officials have been in contact with the governor’s office, although attempts by West Virginia Public Broadcasting to confirm those communications have so far proven unsuccessful. 

Brian Abraham, who serves as general counsel for Gov. Justice, and another spokesman for the state’s response to the coronavirus did not immediately respond to questions about the Monongalia County order. 

Bloom argued that Pennsylvania residents can purchase alcohol, including liquor, online. However, a website posted by state officials there shows sales have been temporarily suspended due to high demand. 

Interstate Commerce: Questions of Constitutionality

But restricting residents of a state coming into another to purchase liquor draws legal questions, particularly one of a constitutional nature.  

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution  — commonly known as the “commerce clause” — deals with the issues of interstate commerce. The constitution puts the power to regulate such business in the hands of Congress. 

West Virginia University constitutional law professor Bob Bastress said that the Monongalia County Board of Health’s order is likely unconstitutional. 

“The current situation allows the state to do things it might not be able to do in normal circumstances,” Bastress said, noting the outbreak of the coronavirus and the state of emergency that’s been declared in West Virginia. 

But Bastress said a state of emergency or any kind of executive order by a governor — does not give county officials license to restrict commerce between states. 

“Unless you can show that out-of-staters present some danger that in-staters don't, he said. “And I don't see that — at least, I haven't heard what that would be.”

Limiting Alcohol Sales Could Cause Strains On Health Care Systems

For some, the Monongalia County order also raises concerns about whether Pennsylvania residents dependent on alcohol might suffer withdrawals. 

“It is going to cause a lot of health problems for those dependent on it,” tweeted Republican Del. Amy Summers, R-Taylor on Saturday.“It’s actually essential for those that need it and they will have to utilize the healthcare systems without it.”

Reached by phone Saturday afternoon, Summers said she understands Monongalia County officials’ concerns, but she said both Monongalia and Pennsylvania’s responses lack foresight in how they may add more strain on health care systems and its workers. 

“It seems to me like that's an error on the state of Pennsylvania's part. I understand their decision,” Summers said. “But I think Pennsylvania is missing the information that people that are alcoholics —  people who are dependent on alcohol, this is something essential for them.”

Outside of her duties as a state lawmaker, Summers is employed as a registered nurse for WVU Medicine at United Hospital Center in Bridgeport. She said she’s seen patients with substance use issues and that they have, at times, raised concerns over not being able to acquire alcohol.

“We have people in the emergency department, when they're going to be admitted — say they broke something or they need to have surgery — they don't want to tell you, necessarily, but they  will tell you, ‘I'm concerned about this. If I don't have a drink tomorrow, you know, I'm going to be in trouble,’” she said, explaining some of what she has heard from alcohol-dependent patients.

Dr. Dilip Chandran, a psychiatrist in Morgantown who also is certified to treat patients with substance use disorders, has similar concerns.

“It depends on a person's intake, of course, but many people can go through withdrawal symptoms that would lead them to seek another drink or possibly substitute with another kind of medication — like what they call benzodiazepines,” he said. 

Chandran said it is plausible that some nearby Pennsylvania residents might experience withdrawal symptoms and seek medical care in West Virginia. He also noted that alcohol withdrawal could lead to life threatening reactions, such as seizures.

But despite concerns over the impacts of the order, Bloom stands by the county’s decision. He said his first priority is the safety and well being of the residents of Monongalia County. 

“I'm the first person to protect civil liberties and rights. But we're in a situation that we have to look at the bigger picture,” Bloom said. “And one of the concerns [we have] is the longer we allow people to come down who have this infection, the longer we close the businesses and the longer we're having to stay [at home]."

Just before 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Gov. Justice announced he had expanded an execuitve order that applied to the three Eastern Panhandle counties to also include three additional counties in the state — Harrison, Kanawha and Monongalia. The governor's office said the expanded executive order would be available Sunday after it had been filed with the Secretary of State's office. 

“Right now, 38 percent of the COVID-19 positive cases in West Virginia are in these three counties,” Gov. Justice said, referrning to the latest exectutive order. “If you add in Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties, its 62 percent of all the positive cases in our state."

On Sunday, the Hancock County Health Department adopted a similar policy of restricting alcohol sales to in-state residents. 


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