opinion | Luke O’Neil

Problems with late-night revelers are not caused by the time of day

Later last call

Customers sat at a Boston bar.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff/file
Customers sat at a Boston bar.

WHEN I think back on most of the best nights I’ve spent out in Boston — and as someone who covers both the music and bar scenes here, I’ve seen quite a few — there’s a common theme to the proceedings. Maybe it’s one of those nights where the alchemy of dancing, alcohol, and friendship all conspire to transport us outside of ourselves. Or the nights when I worked in the restaurant business, where the staff would loosen the aprons, make haste to a nearby bar, and trade stories like a military unit reliving a siege. We wished the night didn’t have to end, because why should it?

In Boston, where closing time is a perpetually looming specter, it seems just as things get going, the lights are thrown on, the glasses are collected, and we’re ushered out the door, evicted into the night in the midst of our revelry.

Mayor Martin Walsh wants to do something about it with his plan to permit area bars to stay open as late as 4 a.m. Predictably, the no-fun police at the State House have pushed back, with lawmakers worried about the “quality of life” for their constituents.


The harrumphing over Walsh’s plan is couched in the typically reductive framing that any such incremental nudges toward the libertine are met with here in Boston. Whether it’s proposals for happy hour or more liquor licenses, you typically hear the same thing: Why should we be making it easier for drunks to go puking in the streets and causing mayhem? Nothing good happens after 2 a.m., the argument goes.

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The image of a vomit-spewing, fist-wielding barbarian is leveraged in all such discussions over alcohol as a panic-inducing boogeyman. Yes, fights and accidents do happen, but I can’t remember the last time I saw one. Perhaps I’m just not going to the wrong bars and clubs, but there’s simply nothing inherently more dangerous about 2:30 a.m. than any other hour. It seems to me that daytime drinking events lead to just as much reckless inebriation.

Every time there’s a big daytime sporting event, or a major drinking holiday, the number of alcohol-related emergency room visits spikes, according to data provided by the Boston Public Health Commission. Over the past year, the city averaged about 203 alcohol-related emergency room visits a week, or 29 a day, for 21- to 60-year-olds. Outside of New Year’s Eve, the biggest jumps came on Labor Day, the Red Sox parade, a daytime Patriots playoffs game, and St. Patrick’s Day, where the numbers nearly doubled. Maybe instead of pushing back last call we should curtail first call instead?

It’s not as if the young people we’re presumably protecting from themselves by maintaining earlier closing times can’t figure out a way to keep the party going after the bars close. But at house parties and the like, it’s a lot harder to regulate indulgence, in terms of the underaged being served, the amount of alcohol being consumed, and the level of noise. Providing more venues for late night socializing would make the situation more manageable for people who are trained to do so.

That idea of training is a crucial step. Too often the problems that do arise in our bars come not from the hour in question, but from poor crowd control and service standards. Employees need to feel more secure in utilizing the power they already have to shut off overly intoxicated patrons. This is true at both 3:30 p.m. and 3:30 a.m. Bars that don’t over-serve drinkers don’t have wasted customers, no matter what time of day it is.


As for crowds, there’s no reason why late night hours need only apply to our bigger dance clubs, where a lot of violence is a result of the throngs all being pushed out abruptly into the streets at once upon closing time. One of the reasons those place are all so crowded in the first place is because they’re some of the only bars open until 2 a.m. Making more diverse options available for people, including the more intimate pool-table-and-a-jukebox type of joints where some of us may simply relish the late night socializing, would help spread out the concentration of drinkers.

“Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.” may have made sense a generation ago, but as the mayor can see, this isn’t your parents’ Boston anymore. It’s probably not your Boston any more either, to be honest. As a friend of mine who works in the industry said recently, “Actually, nothing good happens before 11 a.m.’’

Luke O’Neil is a regular contributor to the Globe, where he covers the music and bar scenes. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeoneil47.