Happy Hour and the COVID Pandemic

Toronto and the COVID pandemic

Shutting down businesses for months at a time is devastating financially, emotionally, and physically. There is inventory that needs to be turned, staff that have bills to pay, rent and utility bills that will keep piling , and the uncertainty of it all creates the perfect storm for any small business.

If a shutdown can save lives, let’s do it together. Let’s band together for a meaningful lockdown, of schools, malls, offices, anywhere there are people gathering, or at the very least, have a consistent protocol in place. 

If we want a controlled, ‘flatten-the-curve’ strategy, let’s look at other countries that have been successful.

Hong Kong limits public gatherings anywhere from 2-4 people depending on the current level of COVID cases, and mandatory mask wearing in all public spaces. Anyone caught breaking the rules are fined thousands of dollars and face jail time up to 6 months.

Vietnam has never imposed a national lockdown. Instead they focus on containment, including suspension of international flights from countries with outbreaks, a 14-day mandatory quarantine for all travelers at Government established sites, and complete village lockdowns at the onset of an outbreak.

Toronto, and Canada in general, can restrict travel to within your neighborhood, impose distance requirements (e.g. travel only within 5 kms from your residence or place of work), limit public gatherings and restaurant seating to only members of your household, mandatory hand sanitization and masks in all public areas, and heavy enforcement and fines for those breaking the rules.

In short, we do not need to close restaurants or businesses, we just need better controls and enforcement in place to limit capacity and increase safety protocols, and have a consistent containment plan at the first signs of an outbreak.

What we can learn from the History of Happy Hour

Ironically, it was prohibition that created happy hour as a time to drink alcohol.

Prohibition went into effect in the early 1900s as a measure to save grain for producing food for the war efforts and to maintain general civility. Prohibition across Canada and the U.S. meant that businesses were prohibited from manufacturing and selling alcoholic beverages.

Despite the new legislation, prohibition was very difficult to enforce. People started to gather and drink before eating out at restaurants, where alcohol was banned. Many people started businesses making their own alcohol, and became known as ‘Bootleggers’ (producing and selling liquor illegally). Some entrepreneurs started secret establishments to sell alcohol to patrons known as ‘Speakeasies.’ When prohibition ended in 1933, the concept of drinking before dinner stuck around.

What we learn from this is that Prohibition failed because at least half the adult population wanted to carry on drinking, the policies were riddled with contradictions, and the lack of consistency muddled any attempt at enforcement.

Sounds familiar? In Ontario, we have a Yellow zone, Orange zone, Red zone, Lockdown…which  means no drinking after 9pm, but if you cross the street to a Yellow zone, you can dine and drink to your heart’s content. Toronto had a ban on indoor dining, but you can dine in if it’s in a tent. We limit social gatherings to only people within our household, but you can have gatherings as long as it’s less than 10 people (25 people if it’s outdoors). Public health officials warn people not to go out unless you ‘absolutely have to’, but then they allow malls and shops to open (I’m sure buying skinny jeans doesn’t qualify as ‘absolutely have to’). We tell people there will be severe fines for people who throw parties, but then we fine them $750 for throwing a birthday party for 100 people. 

Happy Hour Today

Given the current COVID environment, the need to socially distance, the capacity limits imposed on restaurants and bars, and hundreds of thousands of jobs lost due to the global pandemic, it’s hard to imagine people gathering and socializing over cocktails and brews. 

But there is something to be said about pushing people to off-peak times. Restaurants don’t just promote half-price wines on Wednesday because they like a lower margin. They do this to increase traffic during off-peak. Eat lunch after 3pm or dinner after 9pm and you’ll surely save 30-50% on food and drink specials at many restaurants. Have date night on a Wednesday and you are sure to save money on wine and avoid the crowds.

Happy Hour stats courtesy of Dealiem

Restaurants and businesses can survive this pandemic, they just need a way to safely do so. With more people working from home, and more flexibility in their day, changing people’s habits to eat lunch earlier, dinner later, or move date nights from Friday to a Wednesday is a definite start. 

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