The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia happy hours could become less secretive if new booze law passes

Virginia law restricts how bars such as Clarendon Grill in Arlington can promote their drink specials in windows, chalkboards on the street, online menus and social media accounts. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

It’s after five but before seven on a recent Friday evening, and across Clarendon, despite the odds, office workers have found themselves sitting in front of discounted drinks.

Happy hour in Virginia is a somewhat secretive affair. Bars can detail drink specials anywhere inside an establishment. But signs in windows, chalkboards on the street, online menus and social media accounts are heavily restricted. Only recently were bars allowed to reveal outside their walls that they had drink specials at all. If new proposed legislation succeeds, they might be able to say what drinks are involved — say, tequila cocktails or Dominion beer. But they still won't be allowed to advertise the price.

“That’s never going to happen,” said state Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). He tried, two years ago, but advocates against teen drinking “freaked out,” he said, and the bill died.

His new effort is a compromise that may still face resistance.

“Any promotion of happy hours through social media, et cetera, is only going to promote binge drinking,” said Sarah Freund, executive director of the Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County. “We are seeing the consequences of that, and we don’t want more of it.”

The group cites research from John Hopkins’ Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth that links teen drinking to alcohol advertising and Web sites. However, that research and advocacy organization’s work focuses on television, magazines and brand Web sites, not individual bars and restaurants.

The industry argues that vigilance about underage drinking is a separate issue from telling customers what to expect when they visit.

“In an ideal world, you could advertise truthful information about pricing,” said Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association lobbyist Tom Lisk. But, he said, the group is “sensitive” to concerns that happy hour advertising could lead to ever-lower prices and ever-higher consumption.

While his intention was to address a $2.4 billion budget shortfall, not potential alcohol abuse, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) recently directed the state to raise taxes on distilled spirits.

Many of Virginia's alcohol laws date back to the era just after Prohibition, and remain among the more stringent in the country. Selling any liquor at all in a restaurant was banned until 1968. Sangria remained contraband until 2008, under a 1934 law prohibiting the mixing of wine or beer with other kinds of alcohol. Albo's bill would — for the first time — allow the fruity wine drink (and other mixed cocktails) to be served in pitchers. Only two drinks can be served to a person at one time, and serving unlimited drinks remains against the law. In 2011, in response to a lawsuit, the state's long-standing ban on billboard alcohol advertising was scrapped.

Twelve states ban happy hours, according to the National Center for State Courts. But in the metropolitan Washington area, Virginia stands alone; both D.C. and Maryland put no restrictions on them. And of the states that allow happy hours, Virginia is one of only two that restricts both timing and pricing.

It was not the General Assembly that last year allowed bars to promote their happy hours, but a regulatory review ordered by former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

“It remains a baby step,” said restaurateur Geoff Tracy, who owns businesses on both sides of the Potomac River and has expressed frustration that he cannot advertise the same specials in Tysons Corner as in Rockville, Md., or downtown D.C. “These rules have been around for a really long time, and I think we’re slowly, but surely, modernizing them.”

Should Albo’s bill succeed, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control would then go through a rule-making period before instituting new regulations.

Plenty of bars have found ways to skirt the rules — for example, advertising “speciality cocktails” on one side of a chalkboard and a happy hour on the other. And customers have proven themselves capable of ferreting out cheaper drinks without the advantage of online research.

“Virginians always go to the same places,” said one 24-year-old woman who requested anonymity to speak candidly about her drinking habits. She and her friends had found their way Friday to Clarendon Grill, where domestic beers were $1.75 and appetizers were a dollar off. Besides, she said, if a happy hour disappoints, “you just go to the next bar.”

Another bill that has failed in the past would chip away at Virginia’s requirement that bars must serve (and profit from) food as well as booze. Sen. Linda T. “Toddy” Puller (D-Fairfax) wants to allow wine or beer consumption in art classes, which would legalize in Virginia such drinking-and-painting businesses as U Street’s Merlot’s Masterpiece.

In the case of this proposal, the hospitality association is opposed — and has been for several years. If art studios want to serve alcohol, Lisk says, they need to build a kitchen.