Made-up words always make me cranky, but the needle on my crank-o-meter buried itself when “quarantini” popped up on the lexicon radar. Haven’t heard it yet? It’s the catch-all term for the cocktails we’re supposed to knock back like there’s no tomorrow during the pandemic.
The current worldwide binge party is not limited to one erstwhile fake vocabulary word, though. If you haven’t been invited to a Zoom happy hour yet, I assure you it’s coming. What’s also coming is a steadily accumulating list of ways that we’re being invited to stay drunk-by-ourselves until this is over and we can go back to being drunk-with-others.
Let’s start with a March 16 piece by Eric Asimov in his New York Times column, “The Pour,” in which the wordsmithing sommelier makes his case that drinking alone during a quarantine is fine despite what he refers to as “the stigma” or “the finger wag” one is certain to provoke from what he refers to as “popular culture.” (I’m not sure he understands what our popular culture actually finds popular.)
The piece, “Wine is for Sharing. What Does That Mean in Self-Quarantine?” reads like things I said during that year of therapy I spent trying to convince a clinician that I was not, in fact, like all those other people with alcohol use disorder. I would, somehow, someday, find the skills to drink safely again, I reasoned. It’s filled with things that sound like desperate excuses to keep drinking, such as this: “Wine inspires contemplation as well, which is almost always welcome, especially if the conversation is with yourself.”
And if the need for a soul-searching aid isn’t enough to convince your therapist (it never convinced mine), Asimov seals the deal with this bulletproof rationale: “Wine goes really well with food and it tastes good.” (Note: The New York Times, winner of 127 Pulitzer prizes, has officially broken the story about wine tasting good. It’s a dark time, friends.)
And let’s consider Food Network’s Ina Garten who dazzled her IG followers with a Livestream of herself gleefully making a pitcher of cosmos at 9:30 am, pouring it into a bucket-sized cocktail glass, and declaring, “Cocktail hour can be any hour!” Apparently, quarantinis are best made by the gallon.
Guides to virtual happy hours and recipes for pandemic-inspired cocktails are spreading as fast as the virus, earning headlines in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Washington Post, and even Town and Country. The New Yorker’s brilliant satirist Andy Borowitz joked that drinking before, during, and after a Trump press briefing was now officially prescribed by our beloved and beleaguered Dr. Fauci. (I confess. I don’t watch those briefings, but if I did I would surely tumble right off the wagon.)
It’s not just major media platforms that are sponsoring Drinkstock 2020. Things are not any better here on the ground. Just take a scroll through any social media feed to see the constant references to day drinking, mommy-needs-her-wine memes, images of half-empty glasses lifted to webcams, and litanies of the woes of homeschooling parents just trying to make it to the 5 p.m. starting gun so they can uncork.
I know this is all supposed to be fun-loving, shoulder-punch, lighten-up, can’t-you-take-a-joke stuff, but shit is getting real. Rumors and fake news that drinking can protect people from coronavirus abound. Funny, right? I mean, you don’t have to be an infectious disease specialist to know that vodka can disinfect your countertops but not your lungs, so it’s all pretty hilarious until you read about forty-four people in Iran who died after drinking bootleg liquor they hoped would save their lives.
There’s ample evidence that alcohol actually lowers the body’s immune system. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) just released a fact sheet about alcohol and COVID-19 specifically, stating that drinking “is likely to increase health risks if a person becomes infected with the virus.” Promoting drinking as a coping strategy for a deadly virus is like opening a glitter bomb: it’s pretty and fun while it’s happening, but it’s not necessary or helpful, and the cleanup is a bitch.
Despite bar and restaurant closures, alcohol sales in the US increased 55% for the week ending March 21. Online sales of alcohol? They’re up 243%. In a nation where almost 90,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, you can be sure that this will have consequences beyond a lot of hangovers.
In New York, where they’re running out of body bags and deaths are outstripping morgue capacity, liquor stores are considered essential businesses and are open. The official reason might surprise you: if people with severe alcohol use disorder cannot access alcohol, they can get sick and die. Cutting off the supply of this deadly, addictive substance would put an at-risk population at greater risk, and it should alarm everyone that the way we keep people addicted to alcohol alive is to give us more alcohol at a time when isolation has never been easier or more dangerous.
Are there other, safer treatments available? Yes. Do we, as a culture, want to face this problem and do what it takes to address it? Here’s my answer: While researching this, I saw an ad for a work-at-home desk bragging that it has room for your laptop, elbows, and a margarita (while maintaining good posture!), and simultaneously almost 40% of New Yorkers report that they’re day-drinking while working from home. I’m going with “No.”
Back when I was a young binge-drinker-in-training, I used to think big parties were fun. The more people crowded around a keg the better. Eventually, as my disorder unpacked its belongings and settled in for the long-term. I developed a preference for drinking at home, especially by myself.
Zoom happy hours and giant martinis gulped down on Instagram make it easy for people deep in their drinking to get the best of both of their favorite habitats, parties, and isolation and will surely serve as recruitment tools to increase our numbers.
Obviously, not everybody lifting a quarantini to their webcam has alcohol use disorder or is even at risk, but can we stop using one public health crisis to worsen another? There are over 14 million Americans with this chronic, progressive, often fatal disorder. We live next door. We’re teaching your kids in Zoom rooms. We’re working in emergency departments, serving in law enforcement agencies, and driving ambulances. You see us every day. Worldwide, alcohol kills 3 million of us every year. It’s not a contest, but we just closed the entire nation for less.