Senator: Happy Hour Might Plug Mass. Fun, Affordability Gaps

Chair Not Hearing “Outcry” From House Colleagues To Lift Ban

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 31, 2023…..There’s little interest in the House in lifting the statewide ban on happy hour drink discounts amid an effort to revive the practice as a post-COVID economic boost, a top lawmaker said Wednesday.

After a public hearing featuring calls for Massachusetts to “get our groove back” and a debate on whether boozy drinks or chicken tenders are more harmful to health, Consumer Protection Committee Co-chair Rep. Tackey Chan said his fellow representatives have not signaled a desire to clear the way for beverage promotions in some communities.

Senator Happy Hour Might Plug Mass Fun Affordability Gaps
Consumer Protection Committee Co chair Rep Tackey Chan right flanked by fellow Co chair Sen John Cronin left laughs during a hearing Wednesday while Sen Julian Cyr jokes about the Legislatures younger fun contingent Chris LisinskiSHNS

“I’ve not received a lot of interest from our colleagues to do happy hours at the moment. That could change as we have conversations going forward, but as of last cycle and thus far this cycle, I’m waiting for input and I haven’t heard a large outcry to have it put in place,” Chan, a Quincy Democrat, told the News Service.

He added that he is “personally not liking the idea of the return of happy hours,” which are currently banned under a nearly four-decade-old law.

A bill filed by Sen. Julian Cyr (S 157) would allow cities and towns to opt into offering discounted drink promotions at traditional after-work hours.

Cyr pitched his colleagues on the measure by arguing that it would chip away at the state’s “puritanical” reputation, which he said frustrates many younger adults, while giving bars and restaurants who have lost business in the past three years a new tool to attract customers.

In the wake of the pandemic, Cyr said, many employees who once filled office buildings in denser areas are now working from home, thinning out the crowds that head to local drinking holes once they clock out.

“It’s been tremendously challenging for restaurants, for bars, for other small businesses in our downtowns,” Cyr, who testified at the committee hearing remotely, said. “We need to be thinking about, after they’re done with work, how do we get people out of their homes and back to Main Streets, back to downtowns, patronizing these businesses? I think a local option happy hour is one way to do it.”

Happy hour has been prohibited in Massachusetts since 1984, when a string of deadly drunk-driving crashes prompted action, and past efforts to lift the statewide ban have stumbled. The Senate approved a similar local option system last year as part of a broader economic development bill, but it did not survive negotiations with the House amid veto threats from then-Gov. Charlie Baker.

Cyr said Massachusetts remains “the only state in the country to have a happy hour ban still in effect” nearly 40 years later.

The Truro Democrat, whose family operated a restaurant on Cape Cod when he was a child, took aim at a problem about which he said fellow millennials and other young adults often gripe: its recreational climate.

“Massachusetts has a challenge remaining competitive. As someone who has lived in a bunch of places — I lived in New York City, I went to college in New York, I spent time there, in Washington, D.C., I’ve traveled all across the country — I rarely hear young people talking about how fun Massachusetts is,” Cyr, 37, said. “If anything, mostly we complain about how absurdly expensive it is and how impossible it is to get ahead and to afford housing.”

“Happy hour also provides another tool, albeit a small tool, to help us kind of get our groove back, to help us be a more alluring, fun, attractive place to be,” he added.

In the past decade, Cyr said, both Kansas and Illinois repealed their prohibitions on the discounted drink specials and “neither state saw an increase in traffic-related fatalities due to alcohol.”

He and other supporters, including Rep. Mike Connolly, who filed a bill that would convene a commission to explore lifting the ban (H 3782), have pointed to changes in technology and behavior since policymakers banned happy hours. Ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft make it easier for drinkers to get home without driving, they contend.

But Chan did not find that point convincing.

“I am of the generation of drunk-driving incidents during the ’80s of happy hours, so I’m a little more aware of the impact of happy hours from my teen years,” Chan said in an interview. “People also forget: public transportation did exist, and taxi companies were much more voluminous than today because of Uber and other transports. So while I appreciate a new generation of arguments, they tend to forget that everything you talk about today was there then but in a different form. I mean, the T ran really good when I was a child. I’m just saying.”

The latest effort continues to face headwinds from the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Last year, the industry group’s leader told lawmakers that bringing back discounted drink specials in willing communities would lead to “skyrocketing costs” of liquor liability insurance for restaurants.

“Forty years ago, competition was driven by bad operators who were racing to the bottom. In desperation to gain market share, poor operators were giving away more and more. The more they gave away — the deeper the financial trouble. The deeper the financial trouble — the more they gave away,” Clark wrote in July 2022. “Better establishments with higher costs found themselves competing with the bar across the street’s predatory pricing policies. There is no protection that this new legislative idea will not have the same impact on local restaurants trying to recover from the pandemic that it has previously.”

Jessica Muradian, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association’s director of government affairs, did not mention the happy hour proposal during her appearance before the committee Wednesday but confirmed to the News Service that the group’s opposition has not changed.

The political terrain is otherwise murky. Gov. Maura Healey, who has not staked out a clear position on happy hour, succeeded Baker in the corner office. The Massachusetts Package Store Association, another industry group that wields significant influence in alcohol-related policy debates, has not taken an official position on the issue.

Asked during Wednesday’s hearing if restaurants would need to lower prices to compete in the happy hour arena, Cyr said most establishments earn far more profit on alcoholic drinks than they do on food — which he said is already discounted sometimes in a “faux happy hour.”

That point piqued Chan’s interest.

“Discounted chicken tenders versus discounted alcohol — I mean, what is the greater danger between the two?” he asked.

“It depends how much alcohol you’re consuming and how many chicken tenders you’re eating,” Cyr replied. “I would probably advise, as someone who both drinks alcohol and consumes chicken tenders — and I do them in combination so that they offset one another — both of them are not terribly great from a caloric perspective or a heart health perspective.”

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