Night owls push for later last calls at bars year-round

TORONTO — Partying into the wee hours of the morning at a favourite watering hole is a tradition generally reserved for New Year’s Eve and other very special occasions.

Some night owls like Spencer Sutherland would like to be able to do that all year round, and he’s leading a charge to push last call in Toronto well past 2 a.m.

The music venue owner notes the City of Toronto has the authority to change hours of alcohol service when it deems appropriate, although it’s only done that twice — both for sporting events and both to extend hours earlier in the morning, not later.

Sutherland says Toronto can push last call to 4 a.m. if it really wants to, arguing that a 2 a.m. limit does nothing to further notions of Toronto as a world-class city with a world-class nightlife.

“Two is too early. Certainly compared to many other major cities in the world,” says Sutherland, who runs Nocturne Nightclub and is director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas.

“(A later close) is something that is reflective of the modern big city environment that Toronto is.”

Canada’s most populous city actually does get to party late fairly regularly — the Ontario government allows select establishments to close at 4 a.m. during special events. Over the past year, that included Indie Week, Nuit Blanche, the Toronto Women’s Fashion Week, Toronto International Film Festival, NXNE, Pride, Canadian Music Week and Toronto Men’s Fashion Week.

The two times Toronto overruled provincial laws was during the World Cup in 2010, when it allowed soccer fans to cheer their team with a beer at 10 a.m., an hour earlier than usually permitted, and the UEFA European Championship in 2016, when bar service could open at 9 a.m.

Most provinces in Canada limit alcohol service to 2 a.m. but some municipalities have the power to either shorten or extend that time as they see fit.

Exceptions to the provincial standard include Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec, where service continues until 3 a.m.

Ontario does allow liquor sales until 3 a.m. on New Year’s Eve.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia allows outlets with a cabaret license to serve until 3:30 a.m., but other taverns, clubs, bars and lounges must stop alcohol service by 2 a.m.

There could be some economic benefit to longer hours, says Geoff Wilson, a consultant to the hospitality industry who notes that today’s youth tend to go out later in the evening.

“They’re having a pre-party before they go out because it’s cheaper to purchase their own alcohol and have a few drinks at home,” says Wilson, a principal at the firm fsStrategy Inc.

“They’re not getting out until 10:30, 11 o’clock. The clubs really don’t get busy until those time periods. Extending last call means that the operator has an opportunity to leverage more sales.”

Still, businesses need to determine at what point their alcohol sales start declining and people just start nursing their drink. Then there’s the cost of increased labour, heat and utilities.

“The savvy operator has got to figure out … when does it makes sense to close?” Wilson adds.

Of course, many residents near bars and restaurants see little benefit to extended drinking hours, with community organizations routinely warning of increased noise, crime and chaos.

Longer drinking hours do seem to lead to more problems, agrees Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Canada.

“Last call means ‘drink more’ and that’s why you get this intoxication in a mass number of people,” says Murie.

Relaxed bar hours would demand more liquor inspections, security, policing, emergency services and transit, he says.

“They can’t do that resourcing 12 months out of the year.”

Sutherland agrees that any changes would require increased support services but he’s not pushing for a city-wide extension.

Staggered times in pockets of the city could work well, he says, especially if later hours are determined by an establishment’s proven record of responsibility to the community.

“Alcohol-related harm peaks not because of when the bars close but when everyone is closing at the same time,” says Sutherland, who is also on the city’s liquor licensing committee and noise bylaw review committee.

Sutherland notes a growing interest in cities across Canada to develop the night economy, possibly with a so-called Night Mayor to help spur more after-hours events and culture.

“I think that in 2018 there will be a handful of Canadian cities that have done that,” predicts Sutherland. “It would be great if Toronto can be the first, but we’ll see.”

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