A bill now making its way through the Massachusetts legislature could eliminate a longstanding state ban on happy-hour drink specials, one of America's worst food bans. The move to overturn the ban comes as a recent poll shows that just one in five Massachusetts voters supports keeping the ban in place.
The bill, part of a broader package intended to support the recovery of bars and restaurants in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is sponsored by State Rep. Mike Connolly (D), who represents voters in Somerville and Cambridge. Connolly's bill, which would create a commission to study lifting the ban, "would also permanently extend certain measures that were popular during the pandemic, [l]ike cocktails to go and extended outdoor dining."
The state implemented the happy hour ban in 1984 following the death of a young woman shortly after she'd consumed numerous happy hour drinks at a local pub chain. The woman jumped onto the hood of a car in the pub's parking lot. She then fell off the car, which was also driven by a drunk happy hour reveler, and died.
"The state's new regulation specifically prohibits offering free drinks, discounted drinks or special 'jumbo' drinks that cost as much as regular drinks," The New York Times reported in December 1984, when the Massachusetts ban took effect. "Unlimited numbers of drinks can no longer be offered for a fixed price, and bars are prohibited from sponsoring such promotions as darts or music contests that award alcoholic drinks as prizes. A pitcher of beer can henceforth be sold only to a party of two or more customers."
While Massachusetts was the first state to ban happy hours, today it is one of at least 10 states across the country that prohibits such specials. Notably, Massachusetts wouldn't be the first to rescind a happy-hour ban. Illinois repealed its statewide ban several years ago.
State Rep. Ronald Mariano (D), who serves as House speaker in Massachusetts, says he's open to discussing a lifting of the ban. And though Gov. Charlie Baker (R) says he's unlikely to support lifting the ban, suggesting that his thinking is in line with that of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a MADD spokesperson told Boston.com recently that the group does not oppose happy hour drink specials.
Even if the happy-hour ban's goals were laudable—to combat drunk driving and to reduce injuries and deaths caused by drunk drivers—the happy hour ban never achieved those goals. As I reported in a 2015 column, Massachusetts "has the second-highest rate of drunk driving in New England, and a rate that's 15 percent higher than the national average." Massachusetts drivers report much higher rates of drunk driving than the national average. Incidents such as the one that spurred the ban continue to occur, including the case of an elderly, allegedly intoxicated man who was arrested in 2019 after police say he plowed into two people outside an Applebee's restaurant in a Boston suburb. (To be fair, at least one assessment of drunk-driving arrests and deaths ranks Massachusetts as the best in the country.)
Many bar owners support lifting the ban.
"We are all suffering very much, and at this present time, anything (the government) can do will help us," Donato Frattaroli, who owns two Boston-area restaurants, told the Boston Herald last week. "That is a great idea to bring it back."
Even some bar owners who aren't fans of happy hour discounts support lifting the ban.
The aforementioned 1984 Times report quoted a patron of The Sevens, a bar in Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood, where the state capitol also sits. I called The Sevens this week and spoke with owner Jack Kiley, who's owned the bar for 45 years. Kiley told me that while he doubts he'd offer happy hour specials if lawmakers lift the ban, he agrees such choices should be left to bar and restaurant owners rather than to the state.
That's how it is in most states. And, if Massachusetts lawmakers can get it right, that's how it'll be the next time I come home to the state of my birth to enjoy a dollar off a cold one (or two).