One Year of Fighting the Pandemic
One year ago, the state of Ohio ordered brewery taprooms, bars and restaurants to shut down, an effort to stem the tide of the growing coronavirus pandemic. We knew very little about the virus at the time, which meant there was a great deal of uncertainty about what it would take to fight it. Since then, we’ve weathered several surges of infection and endured tragic losses, most notably the nearly 18,000 Ohioans who have lost their lives to COVID-19.
While the past year has brought an enormous amount of struggle and grief, it has also brought the knowledge and determination necessary to overcome our shared hardship. One year after taking an unprecedented measure to combat an unknown and formidable foe, we finally have some cause for optimism for the year ahead.
To understand how COVID-19 specifically impacted breweries, you have to know a little bit about the economics of the craft beer industry. Approximately 300 breweries have opened in Ohio over the past seven years; the basic business model of the vast majority of them relies on sales of beer by the glass to customers in their taprooms. The sustainability of the small brewery is rooted in the taproom experience: the freshest possible beer, crafted by a member of your community and served in a welcoming atmosphere. The popularity of the taproom experience transformed the craft beer industry, and it has become a proven business model that works in big cities and small towns alike.
Deemed essential businesses at the outset of the shutdown, breweries could continue to make beer and sell it in cans, bottles and refillable growlers for carry out, as well as through wholesale distributors and retail stores. Packaging and distributing beer adds significant expense that a small brewery ordinarily may not find wise to take on. Breweries were faced with an impossible choice: pay the additional cost to sell a product with less profit potential, or shut down completely and wait until customers could return to taprooms.
In response, brewers did what they do best: adapt and innovate.
Ohio breweries had a couple of advantages that helped them stay afloat during the shutdown. The beer you find in your local grocery aisle, convenience store or bottle shop is generally delivered by a wholesale distributor that carries dozens of beer brands. The smallest craft breweries usually can’t afford to give up close to a third of the retail price of their beer to enlist a distributor’s services, but the state of Ohio allows our craft breweries to self-distribute to stores that want to carry their beer. Ohio breweries are also permitted to deliver their beer directly to a customer, giving craft beer fans the option to continue supporting their favorite breweries without venturing away from home.
Only 15 breweries were forced to close their doors permanently in 2020 – not significantly more than in prior years – but it’s impossible to say what that number may have looked like if not for these ways of getting beer into the hands of consumers.
The bar and restaurant shutdown lasted nearly two months, but as coronavirus continued to spread some taproom customers were understandably slow to return. Breweries have taken extraordinary measures to make their taprooms as safe as possible: reducing seating capacity to ensure physical distancing, constructing barriers to minimize risk of infection, requiring masks on entry and when away from tables, rigorously sanitizing frequently touched surfaces, offering touchless ordering and payment, installing advanced air filtration systems, and much more.
All of these changes come with a cost, which is why the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, the Brewers Association and other advocates for the hospitality industry have been working relentlessly to lobby the state and federal governments for targeted relief. Ohio has offered relief payments to all liquor permit holders and delayed license renewal fees. Congress has passed legislation to make grants and forgivable small business loans available, including $28.6 billion in the latest COVID relief bill specifically tagged for hospitality businesses. We continue to work to find ways to alleviate financial burdens and modernize alcohol regulations to serve both Ohio’s breweries and craft beer enthusiasts.
For the first time in a year, we can envision what a return to normal may look like. With more and more Ohioans receiving their doses of vaccine, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are finally trending in the right direction. The statewide curfew that had been in effect during the worst surge of the pandemic has been lifted. The Ohio Department of Health has set the target level of COVID-19 incidence necessary to remove all mandated public health measures. As spring’s warmer weather rolls in, Ohio breweries are re-opening and expanding outdoor seating areas – and continuing public health best practices – to welcome patrons back and safely accommodate everyone in their taprooms.
None of us can say when we can officially declare victory over this devastating pandemic, but the craft brewing industry is moving forward with a much-needed sense of optimism. We can’t wait to see you out at your favorite Ohio breweries, gathering with friends and neighbors, remembering those that we’ve lost, and celebrating what we’ve achieved together.