Earlier this month, as Texas was about to ease its stay-at-home restrictions, Pam LeBlanc pulled her wedding dress out of a vacuum-sealed box, put it on for the first time in 21 years, poured herself a glass of prosecco, strapped on some heels, walked out of her house in Austin, and began twirling in the middle of the street.
She’d been doing some version of this for about 40 days, a period during which she and most Americans were unable to hunker down at their favorite watering hole and let a professional bartender pour them a drink.
“I decided that every day we were going to shelter in place, I was going to put on some kind of dress and go out in the street with a cocktail,” said LeBlanc, 56, an outdoorsy freelance journalist not normally given to swanky garb. “It was my way of flipping off the coronavirus.”
With both bars and gyms closed, such drinking and walking — or “walktailing” — has been occurring at a seemingly unprecedented rate.
It’s not legal to saunter down sidewalks with open containers in the vast majority of American cities, but police have recently chosen to look the other way when it comes to issuing citations.
“That has just not been a primary enforcement focus for us,” said Lauren Truscott of the Seattle Police Department. “We’re really trying to limit exposure between officers and citizens, so I think that would fall into that nonemergent category where people aren’t harming themselves or other people.” (The website Eater recently called for the permanent legalization of takeout cocktails, adding that open-container enforcement has traditionally been racially biased.)
Drinks to go have become so prevalent in many cities that there is even a designer, in New Orleans, selling masks with straw holes in them, The New York Post reported.
“It’s tough to keep my dog on his leash, hold my drink and bend down to pick up his poop,” said Scott Cornick, 45, a bond trader who lives near the South Street Seaport. “City life.”
On a recent Saturday, the restaurant Evelina in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn sold 470 cocktails to go, said Kaitlin Marron, 25, a manager there. She said the restaurant would typically sell 170 of the sit-down variety during the same span in pre-pandemic times.
“Our business is based on weather,” said Marron, whose restaurant is a few blocks from a park. “Whenever we have a Saturday that lines up with a sunny day, it’s like a full-on Brooklyn block party out here.” While food sales are “a fraction of what they used to be," she added, “we’re definitely happy given the current situation and that people are drinking more.”
Texas has long had a congenial walktail culture because “Texas is Texas,” said Jenny Nielsen, 51, a therapy farmer who lives just outside Austin with her husband. “Alcohol does a lot of things for us, some positive and some negative, but it lets off steam, it’s social, it’s a stress reliever, it lightens the mood.”
The stay-at-home mandate, she said, if you’re not affected by the virus, “feels a little bit like you’re on vacation. The alarm clock isn’t as necessary. Demands upon your time are lifted, so it’s like, ‘Why not have a drink at 3 p.m.? Why not have a drink at 10 a.m.?’”
Will Rhodes sells pickled okra and green beans in nearby Lockhart; basically, he’s “in the Bloody Mary business.” Because bars have been closed, he’s been pulling shifts at a local liquor store, Bevies Fine Wine & Spirits, where it’s been “like the day before Thanksgiving every day” lately, with 30 vehicles passing through the drive-through each hour.
Many of those rigs wind up in the parking lot of a closed funeral home next door, and for the past few Fridays, Rhodes has performed a DJ set from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. in front of Bevies, complete with a smoke machine and laser lights.
“People will get in the beds of their pickup trucks 30 yards away from the next truck while I spin records,” said Rhodes, 47, who used to live in New Orleans, where people walktail with impunity. “I’ll get requests from people who are just drinking in their yard. No one’s complaining, and the cops have yet to show up.”
Business has been similarly brisk for Ashley Trout, 38, the founder and winemaker at Vital Wines and Brook & Bull Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington, which sells bottles in the $38 to $58 range.
“We’re sold out of everything,” she said. “People are taking advantage of this moment by breaking all the rules that they won’t be able to break in the future. Walktailing would absolutely fit into that category. People are drinking starting at noon. If it really is ‘the end of the world of as we know it, we’re going to feel fine.’”
In Seattle, the site of America’s first coronavirus outbreak and one of its longest stay-at-home orders, Stephanie Huske, 42, and her husband, Dave Huske, 44, have been enjoying cocktails in their front yard starting at 3:30 every afternoon. When their dog requires walking, Dave Huske makes no effort to conceal his Crown Royal in a clear glass with ice.
“Less than 10% try to conceal it,” said Stephanie Huske, a freelance advertising producer. “The first couple weeks, you’d see people you’d never seen before walking by with their kid, dogs and strollers. And then, two or three weeks in, there was a marked switch to walking with cocktails.”
“I’ve seen people out with goblets of wine and they don’t care,” said Phil Miller, 40, a financial adviser whose “whiskey walks” around the Ravenna neighborhood of Seattle have increased in frequency since his entertainment options became more limited. “It’s better than staring at your front yard.”
Justin Freet, 48, a bartender in Seattle, lives near an elderly woman who is “always walking her dog” and used to “terrorize” his son. But, recently, he noticed “the unmistakable smell of Two-Buck Chuck” on her breath.
“She was so sweet,” said Freet, who hosts a podcast called “How to Be a Better Drinker.” “I’m thinking this apocalypse is bringing out the good in all of us.”
But is it all good?
Kristen Anderson, a professor of psychology at Reed College in Oregon who specializes in addictive behavior, is nervous. “One of the things I’m really worried about is that people are drinking to cope with this pandemic," she said. “I’m concerned that there’s going to be a subpopulation within that group who’ve learned that this is their coping mechanism, and now they’ve gotten used to drinking at home alone. So there are concerns with what this is going to mean to us down the line with health care and addictions services. Calls to alcohol and drug hotlines are really high right now.”
Yet, strangely, with all this epic boozing going on, some people are reporting less severe hangovers. Maybe they’re drinking more water or eating more while they drink.
Or, as Drew Silva, 33, a St. Louis resident who writes about fantasy baseball for NBC Sports, posited, “I don’t indulge in as many sugary drinks when I drink at home. I keep it pretty simple with a beer or a vodka-water. I’m not taking some shot that someone bought me.”
Dr. Richard Ries, the director of Harborview Medical Center’s addiction division at the University of Washington, theorized rather that Americans are now mimicking a French or Mediterranean mode of drinking, “built around having small to medium amounts of wine at lunch or snacks and dinner,” rather than compressing their drinking in evenings or weekends as they did pre-quarantine.
“The hypothesis is that if you drink it in a shorter period of time, you’re much more likely to get intoxicated,” Ries said. “And if you push a toxic level higher in your brain, you’re more likely to get a hangover. A hangover is essentially a bruise in your brain caused by alcohol.”
And, these days, what with the manifold symptoms of coronavirus, a hangover that feels like death may prove to be a false positive for death itself.
“I woke up with this hangover about a week ago that was gnarly,” said Freet, himself an avid walktailer. “I know what a hangover is, but I was feeling under the weather and headachy and started attributing it to COVID-19. One part of me knew it was a hangover, but there was this little voice that was having a panic attack. But I was like, ‘No, man, you drank half a bottle of Old Forester last night.’”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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