For Massachusetts cities and towns that want to bring back happy hour, the practice could be legalized after a nearly 40-year hiatus — a dramatic shift in a state where less than 10 years ago, the state’s alcohol licensing commission characterized the return of happy hours as having a “deleterious impact” on public safety in the Commonwealth.
The state Senate passed a bill that would reverse the ban on happy hour drink promotions, approving late Thursday night language to give municipalities the option to let restaurants serve up discounted drinks, such as two-for-the price-of-one beers, or half off shots between 4 and 6 p.m.
A repeal of the prohibition would represent a major change for the state’s hospitality industry, which is still struggling amid pandemic-related losses, labor shortages, and inflated food prices. And some restauranteurs reacted to the idea with apprehension.
But the return of happy hour could spark a positive shift in the state’s drinking culture, which state Senator Julian Cyr, who sponsored the measure, characterized as “puritanical.”
Governor Michael S. Dukakis approved a proposal by alcohol regulators to outlaw happy hour in the 1980s, after a 20-year-old Weymouth woman was killed in the parking lot of a Braintree bar after being dragged under a car driven by an intoxicated friend, according to a 1983 Patriot Ledger article about the incident. The woman had been sitting on the hood of the car at the time and fell. She landed underneath the car and was dragged 35 feet. Newspapers at the time reported that the driver and her friend had left a trivia game at Ground Round in Braintree, where they received several free mugs of beers as prizes.
The incident triggered a push to ban happy hours statewide, and in November 1984, Massachusetts became the first in the nation to ban happy hour drinking. The ban, still on the books, prohibits free drinks, jumbo-sized drinks, contests with drink prizes, and sales of pitchers of beer to solo customers.
But Cyr said the state needs to balance health and safety with allowing people to participate in activities where people get to gather and enjoy one another . . . Happy hour is meant to be a tool [cities] can choose to avail themselves of.”
Cyr’s proposal, an amendment added to a $4.57 billion economic development bill, would allow any city or town to vote to allow sale of discounted alcohol beverages at bars and restaurants during specific hours, so long as the discount is publicly announced at least three days in advance and doesn’t run past 10 p.m. The local governments would set their own regulations on how the rules would work.
The House did not include such a provision in their version of an economic development bill, so Senate negotiators will need to do some convincing in order for the happy hour proposal to make it into the final legislation that gets sent to the governor.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano declined to comment on whether he’d be amenable to including such a provision and Governor Charlie Baker, who could veto the proposal, told the Globe in 2015 that while he is “generally not a big regulation guy, but that one in particular has accomplished its fundamental purpose” in promoting public safety.
A spokesman for Baker declined to comment Friday on whether he would veto the provision.
Both Republican candidates vying for Baker’s seat support the measure, citing losses the hospitality industry faced in the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, said Healey is still reviewing the proposal.
Cyr’s effort is not the first time Beacon Hill has taken up the happy hour idea.
Petitioners proposed the state put the question to voters on the 2022 ballot, but didn’t submit enough signatures to get the language through.
In February, bills that sought to overturn the state’s ban and create a commission to review and evaluate happy-hour policies were both sent to a study, effectively killing its chances.
Representative Mike Connolly, a Somerville Democrat, said he doesn’t think there’s much evidence to support a link between happy hour and drunk driving incidents, and “ride hailing apps like Uber and Lyft give people a whole bunch of new options that weren’t available decades ago.”
A 2011 casino gambling law attempted to revive happy hour by exempting casinos from the state happy-hour restrictions. The bill that was eventually signed into law by then-Governor Deval Patrick allowed certain casino licensees to distribute alcohol free for on-premises consumption to patrons, with restrictions.
In response, the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission issued a 16-page report on happy hours in 2013, concluding that after public meetings and testimony, liquor license holders are “vehemently opposed” to the idea of happy hour practices, calling them “an unsound business method, which results in a negative image of this industry and creates a public safety hazard.”
“There was general consensus among the Licensees that reviving Happy Hour practices will eventually cause what was commonly referred to as a ‘Race to the Bottom,’” commissioners wrote in their report, referring to when bar and restaurants compete for customers by offering increasingly large discounts.
The idea is still polarizing among restaurateurs and business groups, but is popular among consumers. Last summer, a MassInc poll found that 70 percent of residents would support bringing happy hours back to Massachusetts. A November University of Massachusetts poll on the same topic found about 48 percent of registered voters would support it.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents the state’s 351 cities and towns, said it would be pleased if local governments had a say in whether or not to bring happy hour back, said MMA executive director Geoff Beckwith.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association Of Massachusetts, agreed that ultimately, cities and towns should be free to choose.
But the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which represents about 1,800 restaurants, said the issue is not a high priority and could “bring a lot of red tape” through which businesses might have to navigate. It also could hurt the restaurants’ earnings, said the association’s president Steve Clark.
“Any type of discounted alcohol means a dollar less that goes to the bottom line. Most restaurants are not asking for this,” he said. “I don’t know who is driving the bus on this.”
Claire Makley, owner of forthcoming Jamaica Plain Italian restaurant Tonino, said for small restaurant like hers, happy hour “doesn’t make sense.”
“Everything that goes into making that discounted drink — ingredients, labor, rent — is not cheaper from 5 to 7 p.m.,” said Makley, who used to manage popular Fenway Japanese spot Hojoko. “To discount it would be to discount the experience which is something I’d never want to do to the guest, to our team or to the tradition of Aperitivo.”
David Doyle, who owns Jamaica Plain’s popular Tres Gatos and Casa Verde, said restaurants want to see more action on permanent outdoor seating permits or other relief. Happy hour is not a priority.
“I don’t think we need it to draw in our guests,” said Doyle.
Philip Frattaroli of The Filmark Hospitality Group, which owns North End restaurants like Ristorante Lucia and Ducali Pizzeria, and Cunard Tavern in East Boston, said without additional help to the industry, including an amendment like Cyr’s on an economic development bill “is kind of like a slap in the face.”
“We deserve better than a scenario where I serve something for $6 and the guy across the street serves it for $5,” said Frattaroli, who spoke to the commission for the 2013 report. “This may make someone look cool on Twitter but the reality with happy hour, is that it’s a race to the bottom.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.