Has the time come for happy hour?
PROVIDENCE — Two-for-one drink deals and open bars have been banned in the Ocean State since 1985. Some bars and restaurants offer discounts on food on certain days and times, but cannot do so on alcoholic beverages.
Some Rhode Island restaurant owners and lawmakers say it’s time to give happy hour another shot.
Attempts to bring back happy hour have bubbled up before, including last year when identical legislation passed in the House but stalled in the Senate Committee on Special Legislation and Veterans Affairs.
The same Senate committee will take up the 2023 version of the bill in a hearing Wednesday afternoon. And advocates are hopeful that the economic benefits for businesses will make the proposal easier for lawmakers to swallow.
“If we can create a potential route for more income for employers and subsequently, a little more for the venue stakeholder, then I think we’re just setting up a support system that allows us to survive longer and compete,” said E. Anthony Santurri, owner of The Colosseum nightclub and Free Play Bar Arcade in the Jewelry District.
Increasing cost of doing business
Especially because many restaurant and bar owners, Santurri included, are still struggling to climb out of the financial hole created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Santurri said he owed “tens of thousands of dollars” in back rent to his landlord, accrued during the 2020 lockdown when he was forced to temporarily shutter doors to his businesses.
Adding to his wallet woes: higher wages for workers and spikes in materials and supplies, which he could only pass so much of to his customers.
“How much do people really want to pay for a hamburger?” Santurri said. “You can’t charge $30.”
Proponents say legalizing happy hour would also serve up broader economic benefits, bringing Rhode Island up-to-speed with neighbors like Connecticut, where happy hour is allowed. Rhode Island is one of eight states that ban happy hours, along with Massachusetts.
And it gives restaurateurs a chance to showcase their culinary prowess, according to Rick Simone, executive director of the Federal Hill Commerce Association. The legislation specifies that restaurants can only offer drink deals to customers who also order food.
“The name happy hour is kind of a misnomer, because it automatically implies it has to do with drinking,” Simone said. “This has just as much if not more to do with food as it does with drinking.”
The legislation, and past versions, have raised concerns around drunk driving and over-serving.
“It 100% encourages drunk driving by encouraging patrons to order and down as many drinks as they can in a short amount of time — putting the safety and wellbeing of everyone else, on the road (driving or walking/running) in immediate jeopardy,” Coventry resident Lorena Childress wrote in testimony submitted to the House Corporations Committee, which held a hearing on the bill on Feb. 15.
This has just as much if not more to do with food as it does with drinking.
Santurri countered, “Responsible liquor service has no timestamp. This is on the owner and managers of venues.”
Rep. Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat and sponsor of the House version of the bill, also pointed to safeguards like rideshares and alcohol training for service staff, which weren’t available when happy hours flowed 40 years ago.
“We think it’s a really great tool to get people out and socializing,” Alzate said. “It’s very pro-business.”
Simone hoped the influence of top lawmakers, including Deputy Senate Majority Leader Valarie Lawson, an East Providence Democrat and bill sponsor, would increase the bill’s chances of success this year.
Lawson did not return inquiries for comment.
Greg Pare, a spokesman for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, said in an emailed response Tuesday that Ruggerio “would not want to pre-judge a bill prior to the public hearing process.
“He will listen to the testimony and consult with the committee chairman once the bill is heard,” Pare said.
Gov. Daniel J. McKee was also non-committal. Olivia DaRocha, McKee’s press secretary, said in an email Tuesday that the governor will make a decision “if and when it reaches his desk.”
The Senate Special Legislation and Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the happy hour legislation Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. at the State House in Providence.