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Mass. lawmaker wants to reconsider state’s decades-old ban on ‘happy hour’ drink specials

From left Ryan Ruta, Alex Comte, and Neal Ajubita enjoyed beers while having out at the The Sevens Ale House in Beacon Hill.
From left Ryan Ruta, Alex Comte, and Neal Ajubita enjoyed beers while having out at the The Sevens Ale House in Beacon Hill.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

It’s been almost four decades since the state put an end to “happy hour” for alcoholic drinks in Massachusetts. A new bill looks to open a conversation about bringing it back.

The legislation, filed by Representative Mike Connolly, a Democrat who represents Cambridge and Somerville, aims to revisit the state’s ban on happy-hour drinking that went into effect in 1984 amid a push to combat drunk driving.

Part of the driving force behind Connolly’s effort is a recent poll from MassInc that shows 70 percent of Massachusetts residents would support ending the ban on happy hours.

The bill would not end the ban itself but could kick off a dialogue between stakeholders over whether it should remain.

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“This would be a big change, and I don’t presume to have all the answers, but I think it’s clear for a number of reasons that there’s interest to, at the very least, have that conversation and see if we can find consensus,” Connolly said in an interview Thursday.

The bill also seeks to make permanent some of the changes to dining regulations that emerged during the pandemic, including outdoor seating, caps on delivery apps, and allowing alcoholic drinks to be ordered for takeout and delivery.

Connolly said a hearing on the bill will likely take place this fall. He said he is working with House counsel on the bill’s final language, which will be released in the coming days.

Among the reasons Connolly says it is time to revisit the ban on happy-hour drink specials is the rise of ride-sharing apps, which have given patrons a new set of options for ways of getting to and from their favorite restaurants and bars.

“We recognize why there was the push to ban happy hours in the first place,” he said. “Nowadays with Uber and Lyft, . . . it’s a worthy conversation to understand how that can help mitigate the concerns that led to the ban in the first place.”

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Connolly can’t count Governor Charlie Baker among his supporters to lift the ban. Speaking to reporters Thursday on Cape Cod, Baker said he’d be “hard-pressed to support changing it.”

“That law did not come about by accident,” he said. “It came about because there was a sustained series of tragedies that involved both young and older people in some terrible highway incidences, all of which tracked back to people who’d been overserved as a result of happy hours at a variety of places.”

“I get the fact that for most people they’re probably just an opportunity to spend time and enjoy it with friends, but that law came about as a result of some really awful things that happened over a sustained period of time,” he said.

In July of 1984, a study for the Quincy District Court had concluded that bars linked to drunken drivers tend to be larger establishments that offer music, happy-hour specials, or both, according to Globe reports at the time. The study had found that 100 of the 222 bars, restaurants, and other businesses serving alcohol within the court’s jurisdiction had produced 249 drunken drivers since September of 1982. Out of those 100 establishments, 11 accounted for 82 drunk drivers, or about 33 percent of the total, the Globe reported.

Braintree and Framingham had already implemented bans on selling alcohol at a reduced price. The state followed later that year when then-governor Michael Dukakis signed off on new regulations developed by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission to outlaw happy hours, making Massachusetts the first in the nation to ban the practice of after-work drink specials. He said the measure would “go a long way toward” reducing tragedies that resulted from drunken driving.

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Bob Garguilo, executive director of the Massachusetts office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, expressed neither support nor opposition to the bill when reached for comment. He said the responsibility is with the consumer to make plans for safe travel if they’ve been drinking.

“It’s ultimately up to the individual to make the right decision and not drive after consuming alcohol, whether free, happy hour or during non happy hour,” Garguilo, executive director of the organization’s Massachusetts office, said in an email. “MADD just wants to ensure that individuals deciding to consume alcohol have a plan to get home safely. This plan should be in place prior to consumption. Rideshare opportunities or use of a designated driver saves lives. Call Uber. Call Lyft!”

Connolly said he would like to see MADD among the stakeholders involved in the discussion if the issue is approved for study.

“I would welcome their voice to the table,” he said.

Connolly said that allowing happy-hour drink specials could also help bars and restaurants who, prior to the pandemic, relied on the evening crowd heading for an after-work drink.

“There’s a big conversation about the future of work, and we’re hearing from restaurant and bar owners that that implies challenges for them,” he said. “If less people are working from the office, that means the after-work crowd is not necessarily showing up as frequently. In the context of more people moving to work from home, this could compensate for some of those losses.”

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Bob Luz, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said restaurant owners have historically opposed reinstating happy hours for alcoholic drinks.

“This is merely a proposal at this time, and in the past the vast majority of owners have been opposed to returning to the old form of happy hour,” he said in an email. “Instead, they have built food-focused specials during happy hour, which is bringing tremendous value to our guests and seems to be working just fine.”

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico.