PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Happy hour is one step closer to making a comeback in Rhode Island.
In a vote of 54-10, the R.I. House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday that would allow restaurants and bars to offer happy hour drink specials, but only to patrons who order food.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Karen Alzate, defines food as anything “prepared on premises … as either an appetizer or entrée item.”
Snacks such as pretzels, popcorn, chips, and other foods that are commonly eaten between meals do not meet that requirement.
“With our hospitality industry still recovering from the economic damage caused by COVID-19, this bill will give these small businesses another way to bring customers back to their establishments and make up for the lost income and wages suffered during the pandemic,” Alzate said.
The legislation allows restaurants and bars to promote their happy hour specials so long as the advertisement specifically mentions the food requirement.
Happy hour has been banned in Rhode Island since the 1980s due to drunk driving concerns. Before the vote Tuesday, that issue was debated on the House floor.
“A lot of people don’t stop at 7 p.m., and when they get started on a rocket ship for two hours, it doesn’t come down too easy,” House Minority Leader Blake Filippi said. “I’m concerned about drinking and driving, I’m concerned about rowdiness. I’m concerned.”
Filippi, who represents Block Island and Charlestown, as well as parts of Westerly and South Kingstown, argued that representatives in favor of the bill have the luxury of public transportation in their districts.
“We don’t have public transportation. RIPTA doesn’t come to our neighborhoods. The only way for people to get to and from bars are cars,” Filippi said. “We like to assume people always follow the law, but we know they don’t. This bill is wrong, this is gonna get people hurt.”
If passed, the bill would make happy hour legal statewide, meaning city and town ordinances would not supersede the state law.
Alzate fired back, stating that bartenders and servers need to be trusted.
“We have to trust that they are TIPS certified and that they are knowledgeable enough to not overpour. Unfortunately, this does happen in some cases, and that’s something the establishments have to look for,” she said. “This helps our communities, this helps the employees in those restaurants because they depend on serving.”
Alzate is a former bartender herself and said that extra cash can make all the difference.
“It’s really to give these people, you know, a couple extra bucks in their pockets. I served and bartended throughout college and $50-$100 really makes a difference on a day,” Alzate added.
Bar owners echoed her sentiment about trust.
“I think this is something that our city and state really needs to get behind. They need to believe in the stakeholders and believe in the employees here, and know that we are responsible business owners and we’re going to do the responsible thing,” said Anthony Santurri, owner of Freeplay Bar Arcade in Providence. “This is not going to be a 1985 happy hour.”
The bill now heads to the R.I. Senate for consideration.