Illinois Happy Hour Law
Until just a few years ago, visitors and residents of Chicago looking to enjoy happy hour specials at their favorite bar or restaurant would have been disappointed. Prior to July 2015, Illinois establishments serving alcohol were not allowed to offer drinks at reduced prices for a portion of the day. The statewide ban, which was enacted in 1989, was the result of a push to reduce the amount of drunken driving in the state. According to The Chicago Tribune, it did seem to have an effect. In 1988, 49.6 percent of all fatal crashes in the state were alcohol-related, but by 2012 that number was 41 percent.
Despite the apparent success of the law, there were a number of ways that restaurants and bars could get around the inability to hold happy hour. For example, although a bar couldn’t offer happy hour specials, they could still offer happy day events, during which certain drinks were offered at a special price for the entire day (Washington Post). Higher-end restaurants also routinely ignored the ban against offering a drink special with a meal. Crain's Chicago Business reports.
The new law, Public Act 99-0046, brought the happy hour back to Illinois bars and restaurants in 2015. The Act amends The Liquor Control Act of 1934, and outlines a few requirements that establishments must meet before implementing a happy hour period. The first thing an establishment must do to legally offer happy hour drink specials is to give notice of the discount 7 days prior to the promotion period. Notice can be given by advertising the drink specials either on the premises or on the establishment’s website.
The law also limits the number of hours per week any establishment can designate at happy hours to 15 hours. Discounted drinks cannot be offered for more than 4 hours in any one day, those hours do not have to be consecutive, however, leaving open the possibility for more than one happy hour event on the same day. Happy hour specials cannot be scheduled after 10:00 p.m., and once the promotion period has started, the establishment is not allowed to change the price of a drink (235 ILCS 5/6-28).
Along with these restrictions, Public Act 99-0046 also describes conditions under which drinks can accompany meals or be included as part of a package deal at a tour, tasting, or other event. While the Act expressly bans establishments from offering unlimited alcoholic drinks during a happy hour promotion, however unlimited packages can be offered at private functions not open to the public. Establishments can offer “meal packages” that combine food and, if desired, unlimited drinks. As long as the “party package” is limited to attendees and both food and alcohol are served, an establishment can offer unlimited drinks for up to 3 hours in the event space. This time limit doesn’t apply to private functions, such as weddings and fund-raising functions, where “guests in attendance are served in a room or rooms designated and used exclusively for the private party, function or event” (235 ILCS 5/1-3.36)
Although the new law had its opponents, Illinois businesses are claiming that their concerns have not come to pass. Chicago Eater, reporting a year after state lawmakers made happy hour legal in Illinois, quote legislators and lobbying groups who say that the law has boosted sales. Proponents of the legislation also point to other benefits of the new law including an increase in Illinois liquor tax collections, which rose about 3.6 percent in one year, and a significant decrease in the number of complaints from confused restaurant owners who were being fined for violations.
The effect of the new happy hour law on drunken driving in Illinois remains something of a question, even years later. According to the Illinois Secretary of State, in 2017, alcohol-related crashes made up about 30% of the total fatal car accidents that year. But how many of these DUI-related fatalities are linked to happy hour law changes is unknown. Such a connection is hard to track because police likely wouldn’t consider happy hour activities an important item to note in their accident reports.
Jordan Matyas is an Illinois attorney with a practice focus in Illinois administrative law.