Why Is Happy Hour Still Illegal in Massachusetts?

Illinois just repealed their ban on happy hour. Are we ever going to do the same?

Glasses of light and dark beer on a pub background via Shutterstock

Beer photo via Shutterstock

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed a law on Wednesday repealing his state’s ban on drink specials and happy hour. The law, in place since 1989, was passed initially to reduce drunk driving accidents in Illinois. With Rauner’s signature, Illinois joined Kansas as the second state to repeal a state ban on happy hour in the 21st century.

Happy hours are still banned in Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and right here in Massachusetts.

Not long after Rauner signed the repeal of the happy hour ban, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker reiterated his support for the state’s current ban on happy hour at a Q&A event aptly named “Political Happy Hour.” Baker told the crowd, while drinking what appeared to be a Harpoon, that his favorite drink in the office is “water.” A safe but boring answer.

Efforts to repeal the happy hour ban in Massachusetts, in place since the 1984 drunk driving death of Weymouth 20 year-old Kathleen Barry, have been limited and unsuccessful. The most recent serious attempt to change the law came in 2011 when the state was in the process of legalizing casino gambling. The Gaming Act allows Massachusetts casinos to give out free drinks to patrons on the gaming floor. In 2013, the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission released a report on the state’s happy hour laws and recommended no changes. It was foolish at the time to think that by allowing restaurants to serve discounted drinks that they would suddenly be on the same food-and-beverage playing field as billion-dollar casinos, but it was at least an attempt to bring Massachusetts in line with the majority of states.

A budget amendment authored by House Minority Leader Brad Jones that sought to repeal the ban on happy hour did not go very far this session before being pulled. With the crafting of the budget done for the year and the legislative priorities for this session largely established by leadership, it does not appear likely that a standalone happy hour reform bill of any kind will emerge out of this session.

The new law in Illinois is not exactly a laissez-faire approach to happy hour, but it is a step in the right direction that Massachusetts could implement down the road. The legislation Jones offered was in a similar reform vein, but was not a full blown repeal of all happy hour regulations that some may be imagining. It aimed to limit happy hour to Sunday-Wednesday and was crafted as a way to help restaurants and bars.

The Illinois law allows for up to four hours of happy hour per day with a maximum of 15 hours a week. All happy hours need to advertised a week in advance. Free drink specials like two-for-one deals are strictly prohibited. And establishments cannot host drinking games or give drinks away as prizes like at trivia nights.