PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Will happy hour return to Rhode Island?
That’s what lawmakers will discuss later this week.
New legislation, recently introduced to the R.I. General Assembly by Rep. Karen Alzate, D-Pawtucket, would allow restaurants and bars to serve happy hour specials, but only to patrons who order a full meal.
Specifically, the proposed bill would allow for “happy hour drink specials served as part of a larger transaction that includes a meal.” That meal, as described in the proposal, includes food “that is prepared on the premises … sufficient to constitute breakfast, lunch or dinner.”
Happy hour was banned in Rhode Island back in the 1980s due to drunk driving concerns.
“Happy hour back then was you could buy two alcoholic beverages for the price of one. It doesn’t sound like there was a lot of regulation around the amount of alcohol you could have,” Alzate said Monday. “The way I introduced it was you can get a discount on your alcohol beverage during a happy hour time with a full meal. You can’t have bar nuts or popcorn or pretzels, you have to have a full meal.”
While he doesn’t necessarily agree with the bill, Sean Cassidy, director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) of Rhode Island, said he doesn’t want to prevent people from having fun.
If the bill passes, Cassidy said he hopes those who participate in happy hour events will ensure they have a safe return home ahead of time.
“We’re not against people having a good time,” he said. “We just want people to do it responsibly.”
The conversations surrounding legalizing happy hour have been growing in recent months.
General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who will be running against Gov. Dan McKee in the upcoming gubernatorial election, said he supports the bill.
“Rhode Island is one of only eight states in the country that doesn’t allow for happy hours,” Magaziner wrote on his campaign website. “However, happy hours are among the most successful strategies to improve marketing and sales for bars and restaurants, which have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.”
The Ocean State Coalition, which represents hundreds of small business owners, is on board with legalizing happy hour, as is the Federal Hill Commerce Association.
Rick Simone said the organizations started pushing for it last year, but also have some amendments in mind. They’ve requested for the bill to be broadened to include any type of food.
“There’s a couple of things that would make [the legislation] stronger and more beneficial,” he said. “One of those being that happy hour, or ‘appy hour,’ as we’re starting to call it, could exist with any food. It wouldn’t have to be paired with a solid meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It could be that someone’s coming in and having a pizza or wings or an appetizer.”
He also wants restaurants and bars to be able to promote their happy hour specials, which would not be allowed under the current proposal.
Alzate told 12 News she’s open to the amendments.
Anthony Santurri, the owner of Colosseum and Free Play Bar Arcade in Providence, was an early supporter of bringing back happy hour. He said not only will it boost business and put money in servers’ pockets, but it’ll also encourage people to socialize again.
“You walk into a local bar, there’s a bunch of people here, and you start coming once every Wednesday and there’s more people,” Santurri said. “This bartender says your name, and the other people say hello and you meet friends, and you leave and you go home feeling a little better. It matters more than anyone could imagine.”
With lawmakers allowing restaurants to offer mixed drinks to go until at least March, Santurri said the happy hour bill is a no-brainer.
“Why would we talk about keeping to-go liquor and think that that was OK, without talking about a happy hour paired with food-liquor service? It shouldn’t be either-or,” he said. “You don’t have responsible alcohol service only at 9 o’clock. We’re going to be following the same ordinances, guidelines and rules that we would have followed any other time.”
In Massachusetts last year, Attorney General Maura Healey certified an initiative petition to legalize happy hour in the state. The AG’s office tells 12 News the proponent did not gather sufficient signatures to move it forward, so the question will not appear on the 2022 ballot.
The Rhode Island House Corporations Committee is scheduled to consider the bill on Tuesday.