The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a number of new issues that Pennsylvanians never expected to face, with access to alcohol among them.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is not oblivious to the strong demand for products exclusively sold in its stores until March 17, when Governor Tom Wolf ordered the closure of these outlets and many others.

Since then, the PLCB has strived to find a way to increase access to a limited variety of wines and spirits through its Great Wines & Good Spirits website that visitors have found is sporadically open for business and able to take an order online.

The proof is in the numbers. Agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Brassell said the agency increased its capacity to accept 700 orders per day on April 1, the first day it reopens as a fully online operation, to around 1,800 now.

“We are building our capabilities day by day as new facilities take over fulfillment operations, with additional details on facilities and ordering capacity available in the coming days as operations stabilize,” she declared.

Distribution centers, which are places that fulfill online wine and spirits orders, now include some liquor stores that are not open to the public and licensee service centers, where restaurants and bars usually went to fill their orders.

By this weekend, the PLCB expects 121 facilities to operate across the state to pick and pack orders online.

They include: 1 in Adams, 18 in Allegheny, 2 in Berks, 1 in Blair, 9 in Bucks, 1 in Butler, 2 in Center, 10 in Chester, 1 in Clearfield, 1 in Crawford, 4 in Cumberland, 4 in Dauphin , 10 in Delaware, 1 in Erie, 1 in Franklin, 1 in Indiana, 1 in Lackawanna, 4 in Lancaster, 4 in Lehigh, 1 in Luzerne, 1 in Lycoming, 2 in Monroe, 17 in Montgomery, 3 in Northampton, 11 in Philadelphia, 1 in Union, 1 in Washington, 1 in Wayne, 3 in Westmoreland, and 4 in York.

As of Friday, about 4,550 of 5,000 employees in the liquor system have had to use accumulated paid time off or go on unpaid leave. Brassell said hundreds of them will be brought back to work to help fill orders

What is not currently being considered, however, is moving to a curbside pickup setup, she said.

She made it clear that reopening the stores to the public was not underway “although we continue to monitor the situation in consultation with the Wolf administration and public health officials.”

The governor and these officials currently have Pennsylvania under a stay-at-home order until the end of the month. West Virginia and Ohio cut alcohol sales to Pennsylvanians in counties that share a border with the Commonwealth.

So at this point, other than a product made in Pennsylvania from a local distillery, winery, or brewery; buy wine or beer in a store or establishment that sells them for take-out; beer dispensers; or buy wine from an authorized direct wine shipper, the Fine Wine & Good Spirits online option remains the only legal option to purchase alcoholic beverages.

During the second full week of online sales, 10,852 customers out of nearly 1.2 million visitors to the Fine Wine & Good Spirits site were able to order. PLCB recorded over $ 1 million in sales during this week, which is a fraction of the nearly $ 30 million in sales to all customers on March 16 alone, on the day the governor announced the statewide store closures taking effect the next day.

PLCB’s first full week of fully online sales resulted in 7,778 orders placed for total sales of over $ 777,000.

To illustrate how this shift to online-only sales has shifted the agency’s focus, its 2018-2019 annual report shows e-commerce sales totaled $ 5 million for the entire 12-month period to during which 39,000 orders were processed.

One of the ramifications of this increase in online sales is the need for more cardboard boxes and inserts to ship online orders. On Wednesday, the agency’s board of directors approved a contract with Bell Containers to meet its needs for corrugated shipping equipment, which is estimated to cost $ 800,000 through Jan. 31.

This figure is almost four times the amount the agency spent on cardboard boxes and inserts for the entire year 2019.

Meanwhile, several Republican lawmakers have introduced or proposed legislation that aims to either move to a fully privatized alcohol system or expand the availability of alcohol in other places beyond liquor stores.

Jan Murphy can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.

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