Alcohol-Related Deaths Increase In America, Madison Has Issues, Too

It is a story that will find difficulty breaking through the headlines of a major war in Eastern Europe and the historic confirmation hearings for a new Supreme Court justice. But the increase in alcohol-related deaths in America deserves our attention.

Almost a million people in the United States have died of Covid-19 in the past two years, but the full impact of the pandemic’s collateral damage is still being tallied. Now a new study reports that the number of Americans who died of alcohol-related causes increased precipitously during the first year of the pandemic, as routines were disrupted, support networks frayed and treatment was delayed.

The startling report comes amid a growing realization that Covid’s toll extends beyond the number of lives claimed directly by the disease to the excess deaths caused by illnesses left untreated and a surge in drug overdoses, as well as to social costs like educational setbacks and the loss of parents and caregivers.

The topic of abusing alcohol is one that from time to time finds its way to this blog. One local source of frustration is the number of drinking establishments, in spite of knowing the social cost associated with alcohol consumption.

When a young man who was seriously intoxicated several years ago was shot and killed in the Marquette Neighborhood I thought perhaps as a community we could come together and focus on bars that over-serve customers and also start a serious dialogue on the number of drinking establishments we want to have in this mixed-use neighborhood.   Clearly, my idea landed with a thud as resounding as the emptying of beer bottles behind a bar at 3:00 A.M.  Too many wanted to talk about police misconduct and not address the 800-pound gorilla in the room that was the larger social problem with drinking in our culture.

The problem we face does not start with a business model that relies on alcohol sales but rather begins with the face that greets you in the mirror each morning.   For too long too many have just accepted that we need to have alcohol at every place food is served, or we have allowed eating places to be the cover for just another place to sell a drink.  We all are a part of the problem and now need to own it.

In June 2021 the local listserv for the Marquette Neighborhood presented some facts and data that made for much discussion. As the compilator of the numbers alerted readers on the listserv the data is 95% accurate.

The neighborhood has 6,105 residents in 2010, (12.2 % of which were age 17 or younger)? Knocking off the under age 17 leaves 5,360 residents.

Did you know that there currently exists 4,431 seats where one can get a drink in the neighborhood (plus event places including Elks, Sylvee, Old Sugar’s event space)?   

Did you know that of those alcohol seats, there are 2,458 where one can be entertained (1,514 of those seats are on E Washington)?  That no Williamson Street entertainment establishment has a capacity greater than 99 (now that Prism is gone)?

4,735 capacity for drinking

2,302 capacity for primarily drinking/entertainment

1,822 capacity for licensed entertainment establishments

I know I am not the only one who finds the drinking culture in Wisconsin troublesome, and yet at times, I feel like an island on the issue.  To be frank and honest about it I think the drinking culture is embarrassing.  I would rather our state be touted for stem cell research and the home of Lynn Fontanne than endless drunken parties and Milwaukee beer.

Finally, for those who wish to better understand the larger issues regarding drinking in our culture, I would urge The Atlantic article which explores the matter in detail.

Over the decades, scientists have proposed many theories as to why we still drink alcohol, despite its harms and despite millions of years having passed since our ancestors’ drunken scavenging. Some suggest that it must have had some interim purpose it’s since outlived. (For example, maybe it was safer to drink than untreated water—fermentation kills pathogens.) Slingerland questions most of these explanations. Boiling water is simpler than making beer, for instance.

Being an adult requires being able to cope with life sober-minded. There are also professionals to talk with at points in life when issues need to be addressed.  When both of my parents died I reached out to talk with someone who allowed me to understand grief and work through it.  I never had a single drink at either of their passings.  In fact, that notion never even crossed my mind.

What I do know is the data shows what impact sitting for hours with a bent elbow does to society.  I wish my college-educated and progressive neighborhood would grasp that fact, too.

And so it goes.

Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson Was Stupefyingly Drunk, Must Resign Before Killing Someone

Drunk driving and excessive drinking are topics that receive disapproval at Caffeinated Politics. When cases of simply outlandish over-the-top and unacceptable behavior make the news about the intoxicated it at times makes for a post here, too.

The news from Hennepin County that Sheriff David Hutchinson was drunk, driving more than 120 miles per hour, and did not have his seat belt on when he crashed his official SUV on Interstate 94 east of Alexandria gets more and more troubling.

When law enforcement arrived he informed them he was not driving. But he was still possessing his gun. Well, thank God, he might have needed to shoot that offending bottle of liquor that had demanded its way down the officer’s throat!

Law enforcement has enough baggage to carry on the average day than to have this embarrassment added to their overall narrative. Obviously, this is not reflective of the folks who wear blue. But it does add to the smearing connotation of officers who step up and serve. And that rankles at this desk.

After what must be a career-ending spectacle comes news that video from body-worn cameras worn by sheriff’s deputies during their response during the alcohol-induced crash can not be made available at this time. The reason is that under Minnesota law the subject, in this case, Hutchinson, must give consent to the release of the body-cam video.

The drunk has not yet given that consent.

The story, though, gets one better. He wants to stay on the job!

Hutchinson was elected to a four-year term as sheriff in 2018. He defeated longtime incumbent Rich Stanek by 2,340 votes. He told the local powerhouse of a newspaper, the Star Tribune, which CP loves, that “getting sober has helped me regain my drive to serve the people of Hennepin County to the best of my ability. I have a lot more to give.

That is precisely what concerns people.

No one was killed in this crash. But David Hutchinson should not have access to a police vehicle so to try again.

And so it goes.

Eric Mehring Posts Bond, Community Right To Be Mighty Disgruntled After Three Teenagers Killed By Drunk Driver

I believe in the rule of law. I believe in a process to address the ills of society through a prescribed set of actions to ensure society runs smoothly.

But I also believe in common sense.

I cannot think of a more gut-wrenching news story in Dane County over the past couple of decades that can match the horror and sadness than the deaths of three bright, engaging, and intelligent high school guys due to a fiery car crash caused by a drunk driver. Over the many years we have seen all sorts of news reports about shootings, the impact of severe weather, and good people succumbing to deadly diseases.

But nothing has ripped the public so deep than the absolutely needless deaths of Simon Bilessi, Evan Kratochwill, and John “Jack” Miller.

The deaths of these three people were the result of Eric Mehring reportedly driving his car approximately 30 mph over the 45 mph on a two-lane road at night. Oh, yeah, he was also stinking drunk.

Mehring, it was reported in the police account, had a breath alcohol content value of 0.24, which is three times the legal 0.08 blood alcohol content limit. It was also reported that a law enforcement officer on the scene stated Mehring had eyes that were “glossy and bloodshot.”

The court proceeding this week that set Mehring’s bond at an incredulously low $75,000 was met with dismay by the family members of the victims and folks all around this county.

It was obvious what would be the next step in this process.

Mehring was let out of jail after his family posted his bond. Again, I know this is the process that can be used by the defense.

But the gravity of the crime that was committed by this act of drunk driving should have been more than enough to have demanded a bond that would have prohibited Mehring from being free.

I understand in Wisconsin drunk driving is too often seen as a laugh line. Our state statutes are not tough enough as a first offense at driving under the influence is a mere misdemeanor. For too long we have coddled drunk drivers and not been tough on the bartenders who over-serve their patrons.

Why that last point is so ‘out of bounds’ for discussion is yet one more symptom of the larger problem of too much drinking in this state. Alcohol consumption and our view of drinking as acceptable behavior at every turn in life has resulted in a myriad of social problems. That is just a fact.

I have long argued on behalf of stricter laws concerning this broad topic of drunk driving. Such as, that bartenders need to be as mindful of what they turn out into the street to drive home as they are when filling yet another glass of alcohol. If that had been done concerning Meyring this awful nightmare for three teens and their families and friends possibly would not have occurred.

I have been consistent on this blog about needing tougher laws on drinking in this state. As an example, I advocated for the stern law now on the books in Wausau where bartenders need to be sober at their job.

I support outright a requirement that people serving alcohol have none of it in their system. That bill has been introduced in past legislative sessions, once by Democratic State Representative Josh Zepnick.  It does not take long to understand there were plenty of people opposed to that measure. The beer-soaked Tavern League made sure of that. But I suspect many average folks in the state understood the logic of the bill.

What we know is that Mehring was drinking. Someone poured his drinks and took his money. Someone surely watched him leave through the bar door. We can not pretend none of that matters.

The legal process will play out, and in the months ahead, Mehring will face a judge. The penalty phase of the trial will be tough for the family who found it so easy to set Mehring free this weekend.

In the meantime the rest of Dane County continues to have the families of Bilessi, Kratochwill, and Miller in our thoughts and prayers.

And so it goes.

Madison’s MNA Board Should Not Promote Drunkenness

The Marquette Neighborhood Association Board has hit a new low. With a neighborhood that is overwhelmed with drinking establishments, along with the knowledge that too many of our community have clearly observable drinking problems, the news from the MNA this week was truly stunning.

Here is how they promoted what they call the Drunk in Public Picking Up Litter.

DIPPUL (Drunk In Public Picking Up Litter) Event Saturday, June 26 
MNA will be co-sponsoring DIPPUL, a bar-crawl-meets-neighborhood-trash-pickup-party, in our neighborhood from 1:00-5:00pm this Saturday. Bags, picker-uppers and safety gear will be supplied. Just bring yourself and a “do good” attitude. Meet at (bar not named on this blog post) at 1 pm to pick up supplies and get started. Midway stop will be at (also not named here) and the event ends at (yet another bar). Discounted drinks on offer at each establishment. 

There is no way to take any comfort in the design of this pub crawl being about trash pickup. The fact is that once again Wisconsin culture proves that everything needs to revolve around drinking. What message does that send to our youth? Equally important what does this drinking afternoon say about our neighborhood? About the Board?

In 2020 a posting on the local neighborhood listserv painted the picture with data about the drinking problems we face locally.

Here then are the findings of this most progressive place in Madison.  As the compilator of the numbers alerted readers on the neighborhood listserv the data is 95% accurate.

Did you know that the Marquette neighborhood has 6,105 residents in 2010, (12.2 % of which were age 17 or younger)? Knocking off the under age 17 leaves 5,360 residents.

Did you know that there currently exists 4,431 seats where one can get a drink in the neighborhood (plus event places including Elks, Sylvee, Old Sugar’s event space)?   

Did you know that of those alcohol seats, there are 2,458 where one can be entertained (1,514 of those seats are on E Washington)?  That no Williamson Street entertainment establishment has a capacity greater than 99 (now that Prism is gone)?

4,735 capacity for drinking

2,302 capacity for primarily drinking/entertainment

1,822 capacity for licensed entertainment establishments

Before I venture further I should say that I am a Wisconsinite, having lived here all my life.  In many ways my life has mirrored that of other men my age who grew up here.  I came from a middle class family, attended public schools, and had dreams of being an astronaut when a kid. But somewhere in high school I realized I was different in one real black and white way.  I did not drink.  For me that meant I did not attend the drinking parties at the gravel pit in Hancock. 

From what I came to understand during Monday morning’s ‘show and tell’ time the best parties were located at the pit late at night only a few miles from my home. I still recall that at the time I never thought I was missing anything even though I was assured quite the opposite was true.

In simpler terms, unlike many of my peers back then I never grew up thinking that drinking was an activity all by itself.

I know I am not the only one who finds the drinking culture in Wisconsin troublesome, and yet at times I feel like an island on the issue.  To be frank and honest about it I think the drinking culture is embarrassing.  I would rather our state be touted for stem cell research and the home of Lynn Fontanne than endless drunken parties and Milwaukee beer.

To think that my views might be so different had I only been a participant at the gravel pit those many years ago.  I too might see drinking as an activity in and of itself.

Which is another way to say thanks to my mom and dad for keeping tabs on me as a teenager.

I am never sure what makes people want to waste a life in a bottle or glass.  I feel like I never have a day to waste or a time that I do not want to recall down the road. Good days or bad ones.  Being an adult requires being able to cope with life sober-minded. There are also professionals to talk with at points in life when issues need to be addressed.  When both of my parents died I reached out to talk with someone who allowed me to understand grief and work through it.  I never had a single drink at either of their passings.  In fact, that notion never even crossed my mind.

What I do know is the data shows what impact sitting for hours with a bent elbow does to society.  I wish my college-educated and progressive neighborhood would grasp that fact, too.

And so it goes.

Wisconsin Bars Lampooned During Pandemic With Editorial Cartoons

These editorial cartoons are perfectly toned and presented.   The actions of bar owners and some drinkers in this state are most concerning.  The desire to get back to ‘normal’ is one that we all understand.  But the lack of common sense and ability to contain one’s worst impulses in the time of a pandemic is really quite remarkable to witness.

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Wisconsin bars OPEN

Wisconsin Bars Open, Health Concerns Do Not Register With Drinkers

It was the side of Wisconsin that many in our state would rather not see broadcast to the whole nation.  That embarrassing part of our state where some citizens publically show their deep need to saddle up to a bar for a drink.  Within an hour of the reckless and judicially unmoored ruling by the Wisconsin State Supreme Court drinkers were welded to a barstool and sloshing back beverages.  As news reports made clear such scenes were public from Platteville to Port Washington.

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Jack Montemagni, 88, laughs with a fellow bar patron after the two shared a hug at Papa’s Blue Spruce Resort pub, May 14, 2020 in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

There is no way for me to make sense of the actions and behavior of this side of our state.  In the face of medical data and professional advice from experts to social distance, wear masks, and take caution the scenes from state bars scream out as just bizarre.

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Owner Michael Mattson toasts the re-opening of the Friends and Neighbors bar in Appleton, Wis. (William Glasheen/USA Today Network via Reuters)

The lack of local restrictions in many parts of the state underscored why the reckless behavior at bars was soon so prevalent.  The quote that stood out to me from this absurd week in Wisconsin came from Kristine Hillmer, president of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.  She sent out ‘guidance’ to her group’s 7,000 mainly independent eating and drinking establishments to follow local restrictions “if they exist”.  What she stated sends chills through those of us who follow the news, along with the advice from medical professionals.

The rest of the state they can open 100% however they want. It’s a little bit of the Wild Wild West right now.

That was not the calming and calculated manner that any association should have taken when talking about opening businesses during a pandemic.  It is no wonder the vast majority of our state residents will not be visiting such establishments for quite some time.

While I grew up in Wisconsin, I did not grow up in the bar and drinking culture.  In fact, I grew up in the very opposite of such behavior.  I grew up with interests and hobbies and more curiosities than time in a day allowed to be explored.  So I was drawn to the comment from a West Allis drinker who made national news coverage.  

It’s been kinda boring sitting in my house. I love my fiancé, but there’s only so much we can handle from each other without having interaction with each other. 

It was his backward baseball cap along with the apparent fragility of his relationship that made me aware he was not concerned about taking COVID-19 home with him.   The lack of concern from these drinkers at the bars, not only for themselves but for those they are returning to after they get tanked up is what we all must be concerned about.

In 21 days we will find out if some of these drinkers still think it too boring to remain in their home.

And so it goes.

(By the way, libraries have items called books that can be downloaded to your iPad.  You can read them right at home……..really,)

Wisconsin Tavern League’s Opening Idea Not Fully Brewed

I was dismayed to learn that the Wisconsin Tavern League put a proposal forth to open their businesses across Wisconsin on May 1. All of us appreciate the financial hardships that businesses and employees are facing during this pandemic.  But it is also essential to appreciate that only data-driven recommendations and medical guidelines can be used to determine when businesses can reopen in our state.  Just because a special interest provides a great deal of campaign cash does not make them medical experts during a pandemic.

There is no doubt the tavern industry in our state has incredible economic clout.  The sales from restaurants and bars pour $10 billion into the state’s economy.  
No one is denying how many people this industry employs nor how much of an investment the business owners have put into their various establishments.  But at this point with a pandemic wreaking havoc there has to be a recognition that the financial  bottom line of the tavern industry is less important than the lives of the citizenry.  In fact, when compared to life and death their profit or loss does not matter at all,

It has been stated over and over that we must first see a 14-day downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses and COVID-19 symptoms being reported in the state before we open businesses.  In addition state health officials are setting a goal of 85,000 COVID-19 tests per week, averaging roughly 12,000 tests per day.  In addition to expanded testing, health officials will be increasing contact tracing in an effort to track the spread of the coronavirus.  That is a most critical aspect of the plan.

This testing regiment must be operating at the time we reopen as it is an essential step to take so to allow for faith to be created in workers about the safety of heading back to the workplace, and for customers who at some point will start to head to restaurants and movie theaters.  Without broad-based testing and the data which will result, there is no way for the economy to be lifted up in a manner that is very much needed.

We must not ask employees to go back to work, or encourage customers to again consider shopping in stores, watching a movie, or heading to a hair salon until there is data to support such action.

The most salient argument for opening businesses after the medical data supports such a move is to ensure that there is not an increase in virus cases to the point that we need to again shut down the state economy.  If that were to happen it would send a most severe body-blow to the business community, and it would frighten customers to the point that when the state would reopen (yet again) there would be little faith that employers could keep workers and customers safe.

There’s is one chance to open up businesses safely and do so in such a way as to gain the trust of the citizens. Prematurely popping the top for the Tavern League before state  leaders and professionals deem it appropriate would lead to more virus cases, deaths, and even more business closures.

This idea from the Tavern League is not yet fully brewed.

What ALRC Is Hearing About Canopy Nightclub In Madison

The views from the community regarding Canopy Nightclub have not been coy about where they stand.   Such as this one submitted from a family on Jennifer Street.  The ALRC is holding a meeting tonight to further discuss–and I am most confident–correctly reject the application for this nightclub.

We once again oppose the application by Canopy Nightclub for an alcohol license. Throughout the process, proposed operator Austin Carl, has shown he is woefully unprepared to operate this type of business in this location. The previous business, Plan B, had far better management and they were unable to operate without imposing undue burdens on neighbors and were unresponsive much of the time.

A nightclub at this location is a bad fit for the neighborhood. It is hard to control the noise from patrons on a consistent basis. The previous operators were unwilling to invest the capital required to properly soundproof the building to reasonably reduce the impact of nightclub music on the neighborhood. That impact would be most nights of the week, likely from the hours of 9 – 2 am, year-round. This is when most people in a residential neighborhood sleep.

Austin Carl, through his various presentations to the city and the Marquette neighborhood, seems ill-equipped to address all the concerns that grew out of the previous nightclub operation and it would be likely that these issues would be raised again when his license would be up for renewal. Earlier this week Mr. Carl presented proposed improvements to his operation to the MNA monthly meeting which were not presented at a neighborhood committee meeting he attended only a week or two before. These proposed improvements have not been properly vetted by the neighborhood and we fear are meant to appease without any follow-through.

The neighborhood was exhausted by Plan B and the issues it has caused. The City is now well aware of the problems with this type of business at this location. Please do not authorize these problems to occur again.

Amen.