The COVID-19 pandemic that kept businesses closed and Manitobans home fuelled big sales for alcohol, pot and online gambling.

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The COVID-19 pandemic that kept businesses closed and Manitobans home fuelled big sales for alcohol, pot and online gambling.

At a legislative committee meeting Monday, the head of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corp. said liquor sales were up 10 per cent year over year, and home delivery of booze increased tenfold to $5 million in sales from $500,000 pre-pandemic.

The province's PlayNow.com internet gaming platform has grown 200 per cent. Cannabis revenue has doubled in its first full year of sales, with 80 cannabis vendors and more to come in Manitoba.

MLL chief executive officer Manny Atwal warned not to conflate increased sales with increased booze, cannabis or gambling consumption.

"That doesn't necessarily mean Manitobans are drinking more," Atwal said at the meeting.

The Opposition NDP asked the Crown Services committee about the contents of MLL's 2019-20 annual report, which reported liquor revenue of $807 million, an increase of $13 million over the previous year.

Liquor sales were up 10 per cent year over year and home delivery of booze increased to $5 million in sales from $500,000 pre-pandemic. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Liquor sales were up 10 per cent year over year and home delivery of booze increased to $5 million in sales from $500,000 pre-pandemic. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"Part of that increase in sales was related to 'premiumization,'" Atwal said, when asked by NDP Leader Wab Kinew to describe how the pandemic affected Manitobans' consumptions patterns.

"So instead of someone purchasing something under $25, they're spending $30," Atwal said. "The quantity is the same but the actual dollar revenue is a little bit higher because they're purchasing something a little bit more premium."

However, customers who regularly consume alcohol on a weekly basis in amounts above the recommended Canada Health guidelines did consume more alcohol during the pandemic, Atwal said.

That group — a minority of customers — drank one extra drink per week, the Crown corporation's data indicates.

The big jump in alcohol sales was also fuelled by panic buying at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when rumours spread Liquor Marts were being shut down, Atwal said.

Without taking into consideration that early rush to stock up on booze, liquor sales are probably close to two per cent higher for the rest of the pandemic, he estimated.

With restaurants and bars closed, more Manitobans were buying alcohol to consume at home and, with COVID-19 travel restrictions, there were fewer opportunities for them to buy booze out of province, Atwal offered.

Cannabis revenue has doubled in its first full year of sales, with 80 cannabis vendors and more to come in Manitoba. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press files)

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRE

Cannabis revenue has doubled in its first full year of sales, with 80 cannabis vendors and more to come in Manitoba. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press files)

As the pandemic hit and casinos closed, Manitobans registered in droves to the Crown corporation's PlayNow.com online gaming platform, Atwal said.

"We saw over 200 per cent growth in a short period of time," he said of the only legal and approved gaming website in the province. "In 2020-21, we've seen over 53,000 Manitobans sign up as new customers."

Casinos prep for potential reopening

Although there’s no date set to reopen casinos, a lot of planning is being done to prepare for it, said Manny Atwal, chief executive officer of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corp.

When they do, it will be different experience from the pre-pandemic days of gamblers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at tables and VLTs, he said at a legislative committee meeting Monday.

Equipment is being moved to spread customers out, in anticipation of casino capacity being limited once public health orders are relaxed.

Although there’s no date set to reopen casinos, a lot of planning is being done to prepare for it, said Manny Atwal, chief executive officer of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corp.

When they do, it will be different experience from the pre-pandemic days of gamblers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at tables and VLTs, he said at a legislative committee meeting Monday.

Equipment is being moved to spread customers out, in anticipation of casino capacity being limited once public health orders are relaxed.

The Crown corporation is reviewing data in other jurisdictions to get an idea of what casino customers want coming out of COVID-19 lockdowns, Atwal said.

He said to expect more space between VLTs, no table games at first, and fewer food services for as long as pandemic restrictions are in place and customers remain skittish about being in close contact with others in public places.

Of the 1,300 employees laid off after the casinos closed March 18, 2020, 970 remain in limbo, some have been redeployed to government departments at various times, 130 are "voluntary separations," and 20 per cent of executive positions have been cut.

Manitobans also spent more on legal cannabis, which in its first full year of operations generated $51 million in revenue — a $24.5-million increase in revenue over the previous, partial year when Manitoba logged $26.9 million in cannabis revenue.

Canada legalized the sale and consumption of non-medical cannabis in October 2018.

The number of Manitoba cannabis vendors has grown from 40 private-sector retailers to more than 80 vendors at present, Atwal said. Looking ahead, he expects cannabis sales will slowly, gradually increase in step with population growth and more retailers setting up shop.

He couldn't comment on whether the increase in sales means more Manitobans are consuming cannabis.

"There's definitely consumers that have shifted from the black and grey market to the legal market," he said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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