Malheur County sees jump in liquor sales during pandemic

Teri Doran, owner of the Vale Liquor Store, said the store’s sales have grown by about a quarter to a third since the pandemic. (The Enterprise/Ardeshir Tabrizian)

In the months since the coronavirus pandemic sent shock waves through local businesses, liquor stores in Malheur County have registered a rise in sales.

From March to August, liquor sales in the county were more than 20% higher than the same period last year, according to data provided by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Increases in monthly sales in that time ranged from 11% to 28%.

Three-quarters of Malheur County’s liquor sales are typically from the one liquor store in Ontario, said T.J. Sheehy, OLCC director of analytics and research.

Sales “have definitely shot up” for Nyssa’s liquor store, booming when bars were shut down, said Trish Shartner, technician in charge at the pharmacy where the store is located. The spike slowed down slightly after bars reopened, she said, but “it hasn’t significantly dropped off in sales at all.”

“We’re still busy,” said Shartner, adding that many customers told staff they appreciated the affordability of buying liquor in a store but missed the social aspect of a bar.

Aside from implementing safety protocols, she said operating the store during the pandemic has been business as usual.

The Vale Liquor Store’s sales since March have grown by about a quarter to a third, said owner Teri Doran. Public concerns that liquor stores could be considered non-essential and shut down sparked higher sales, which have since leveled off.           

Doran said she had no idea what to expect when Covid first forced businesses to shut down or revise the way they operate. She was surprised when sales picked up as rapidly as they did, and it was initially difficult for the warehouse and store to keep stocked.

“With so many rules and regulations it’s been hard to have happy customers but we are really trying,” she said.

While her business managed to stay afloat, Doran emphasized that it is important to not forget about all of the businesses that have suffered as a result of the pandemic.

“They have struggled to keep the bills paid, they lost employees – so many challenges for them,” said Doran. “I’m super proud of them for adapting and hanging in there.”

Roy Lara, a private evaluator who refers court-ordered clients for DUI and domestic violence cases, said his incoming cases have been slow due to Covid. While he is unaware of any statistics regarding alcohol treatment during the pandemic, he said with people being “bored at home” with “nothing else to do,” the risk of alcohol and drug abuse would increase.

“Just because of the stresses in life, that’s how they deal with problems. A lot of people, they drink, they drug, or in some cases the domestic violence increases at home,” said Roy. “Perhaps the stresses of not making money, which causes arguments that lead to domestic violence.”

Lifeways of Ontario hasn’t registered a measurable rise in caseloads related to the pandemic, said Micaela Cathey, executive director for Umatilla & Malheur Counties.


“We have seen a small but steady increase in referrals due to outreach and partnership within the community with other agencies.”

​“The pandemic has created challenges as it relates to traditional in person access to behavioral health services,” said Cathey. “Our agency was utilizing telehealth platforms prior to the pandemic and we were able to rapidly adjust to expanding on those services for mental health as well as substance abuse.”

Lifeways changed its approach to group therapy for substance use treatment as a result of Covid. The organization had to adjust the way it scheduled groups, both by video means and in person, to take safety precautions related to physical distancing, group size, sanitation of the room, and face coverings and health screenings upon entry to the building

​“A concern with the pandemic is that more people are isolated which creates greater risk of behavioral health symptoms including the use of substances,” said Cathey. “In addition because there are less eyes on so to speak there is concern of abuse that may go unreported this could include domestic violence as well as child abuse concerns.”

​“Increased needs for substance use treatment will be a concern whether there is a pandemic or not,” she said. “National trends for increased alcohol and drug use have shown a continued projected increase.”

News tip? Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian by email at [email protected] or call 503-929-3053.

YOU CAN HELP KEEP LOCAL NEWS FLOWING: Reader support allows the Enterprise to provide in-depth, accurate reporting that otherwise would not get done. Keeping the community well informed is essential. SUBSCRIBE – $5 a month, automatically. DONATE – to provide additional support.