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Could Massachusetts Bring Back Happy Hour?

Legislators are making another attempt to bring back drink specials nearly 40 years after they were banned

A server writes in chalk on the sidewalk outside of a bar advertising $5 happy hour drink specials. Shutterstock

The state Senate has passed a bill that would give Massachusetts cities and towns the right to decide whether to allow happy hour drink promotions at restaurants and bars. It still has several hurdles to get through — support from the House and from Gov. Charlie Baker — and isn’t the first attempt to overturn the nearly 40-year-old ban. But if it succeeds, Boston and other municipalities could make their own decisions about whether to allow two-for-one drinks and other similar specials during certain hours.

In November 1984, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to implement a happy hour ban; there are currently eight states with similar laws on the books, including Rhode Island and Vermont. The Massachusetts ban followed the death of a 20-year-old woman in a restaurant parking lot; she was dragged under a car driven by a friend under the influence after the two had left a trivia game that awarded free beer as a prize.

The Massachusetts law prohibits time-limited drink specials by dictating that pricing must be in effect for at least one week. Additionally, venues can’t give out free drinks, deliver more than two drinks to one person at a time, offer unlimited drinks for a fixed price during a set time (such as a “bottomless brunch”), deliver a pitcher to one person, or host games that involve drinking or award drinks as prizes.

The proposed legislation would allow the state’s cities and towns to vote to allow alcohol discounts during certain hours at bars and restaurants, but not after 10 p.m.; the discounts would have to be announced at least three days in advance. Local governments would be able to set their own specific rules within those guidelines. The proposal would also have the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission create an advisory group to help local governments implement happy hours; the group would include experts in public safety, alcohol licensing, alcohol distribution, safe driving, and restaurant operations.

Proposed by state Sen. Julian Cyr, this amendment is part of a $4.57 billion economic development bill. The House is working on its own version of an economic development bill that does not include this provision, so there’s no guarantee it will make it into the final legislation. If it does, it is unclear whether Baker would veto it, and he has previously expressed reluctance to support the return of happy hour. Republican gubernatorial candidates Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty reportedly support repealing the ban, while presumptive Democratic nominee Maura Healey is reportedly still reviewing the proposal.

There have been efforts to bring back happy hour in the past, including in 2011 when legislation around casino gambling allowed casinos to distribute free alcohol to patrons on premises, with certain restrictions. This didn’t end up bringing about a wider repeal of the ban, and the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission published a happy hour report two years later, following testimony and public meetings, concluding that liquor license holders were “vehemently opposed” to bringing back happy hours, describing them as “a public safety hazard” and a “race to the bottom” that would have businesses forced to compete for customers by offering larger and larger discounts. More recently, a proposed 2022 ballot question on bringing back happy hour didn’t get enough signatures to advance in the process, and two bills related to happy hour got sent to study, effectively killing them.

So, what’s different this time around? Is there a chance it will pass? Massachusetts has always leaned a little puritanical in terms of liquor laws (let’s not even get into the bizarre cordial licensing in some Massachusetts municipalities, including Boston), but there has been some movement in recent years. In 2010, for example, the state’s restaurants were able to start serving liquor at 10 a.m. instead of noon on Sundays — wow — followed four years later by a similar allowance for liquor stores to open at 10 a.m. instead of noon on Sundays. Plus, the state got onboard with to-go beer, wine, and cocktails — at least temporarily — during the pandemic. (And, alcohol aside, Massachusetts was one of the earlier states to legalize recreational marijuana. The times are changing.)

Plus, while cabs were obviously an option in 1984, newer ride-sharing options like Uber and Lyft make it more convenient than ever to get a safe ride home from the bar. A 2021 poll suggests that 70 percent of Massachusetts residents support the idea of bringing back happy hour.

It wouldn’t be a clear win for restaurants, who are still struggling with staffing shortages and countless other pandemic-era challenges, not to mention the lack of assistance from the government. Happy hour might bring in some extra customers for a few hours, sure, but what’s the good of that if there’s no staff available and the profit margins are already so tight that offering drinks at a discount is too big of a loss?

For now, Massachusetts residents will have to continue eating brunch without bottomless mimosas and paying full price for every after-work shot, but stay tuned for updates on this new effort to bring back happy hour. And hey, at least there are dollar oysters.