Lawmakers delay action on ending restaurant alcohol barriers
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A push to repeal a quirky Utah liquor law requiring some restaurants to prepare alcoholic drinks out of public view likely has been shelved for at least another year after lawmakers said Tuesday that they needed more time to consider its implications.
A bipartisan group of senators on a business committee voted 7-0 to discuss holding off on a vote on the measure, which would repeal the requirement on preparing drinks behind a barrier or partition.
The push to do away with the barriers, nicknamed “Zion Curtains,” has been a perennial issue in the Legislature as those looking to modernize Utah’s liquor laws try to roll back a holdover rule from when alcohol controls were the tightest.
Critics have argued that the barriers are silly, serve no purpose and make for a less efficient setup, but supporters say they keep restaurants from looking like bars and curb underage drinking.
“It shields children from the glamour of bartending,” said Laura Bunker, president of the conservative group United Families International.
Senators said Tuesday that they need more information about the causes of underage drinking and effects on public safety before voting on the measure from Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City.
Their hesitancy and promise of a more detailed discussion this summer could be a dead-end for a similar proposal in the House. That measure has not had a hearing yet and likely will not now that House lawmakers know the Senate isn’t ready to take it up this year.
The barriers’ nickname is a reference to the Mormon church, which instructs its members to avoid drinking alcohol. Most state lawmakers and about 60 percent of Utah residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The barriers can be an opaque glass wall or partition in a restaurant or even a separate back room. Diners can still drink alcohol in full view of other customers, including children.
Dabakis said the barriers do nothing to curb underage drinking or overconsumption but stem from a culture clash.
“It’s not about alcoholism. It’s not about teenage drinking. It’s not about a bunch of peripheral social issues,” he said. “It has to do with an awkward, dumb law.”
A proposal to remove the barriers two years ago passed a House committee but later died after Mormon leaders asked lawmakers not to change the law. Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, sponsored that measure and said church opposition was a big reason the bill died.
The barrier requirement has been in place for decades in some form and was preserved despite the liquor laws getting loosened in 2009. Restaurants built before then are exempt.
Melva Sine with the Utah Restaurant Association said the unfair application of the rule puts newer restaurants at a disadvantage to older establishments.
About 1,200 restaurants have some kind of liquor license but most of them are grandfathered in and are not required to have the barriers, Sine said.