Deemed essential operations, Virginia’s state-run liquor stores were prepared with respirators for clerks

A liquor store in downtown Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Why do clerks at state liquor stores have N95 respirators while front-line medical workers are being asked to ration their own supply?

That’s the pointed question the mom of an ICU nurse in Alexandria raised with Gov. Ralph Northam during a tele-town hall this week, relaying that her daughter was being asked to use one disposable mask for a whole week’s worth of shifts.

Northam called the rationing regrettable, but his administration said it was unaware of masks being distributed to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, which has a monopoly on liquor sales and distribution in the state.

But it turns out the authority does have a supply of respirators deployed to its stores and the agency confirms some clerks have been wearing them.

ABC hasn’t been competing with hospitals to get them, according to Taylor Thornberg, an agency spokeswoman. Instead, the masks are left over from the liquor authority’s 2010 preparations for the H1N1 outbreak.

She says they’re now planning to donate at least 4,200 of the masks to healthcare facilities.

“At this time, we’re donating all N95 masks in our possession that have not already been used,” Thornberg said. “The rest are in use/were used by employees who wish to wear them while working in the store.”

Sales have been booming at ABC stores, with retail sales up nearly 60 percent.

Northam, like governors in nearly every other state, has classified liquor stores as an essential business. “Closing liquor stores would not necessarily reduce demand, but could drive consumers to travel further over state lines and/or encourage unregulated markets,” the governor’s spokeswoman told VPM.