Arcane drinking laws in Utah being phased out this year

Friday, March 20, 2009
Steve C. Wilson ~ Associated Press
Jeffrey Holtz, left, in town on business from St. Louis, looks over the lunch menu while bartender Mark Cannella serves him Wednesday at Cannella's Restaurant in Salt Lake City. The divider known as a "Zion Curtain" creating a visual barrier between the restaurant area and the area behind the bar where the drinks are prepared will no longer be needed after May 12 in existing restaurants in Utah. New restaurants will be required to prepare drinks out of customers' sight under a bill approved by the Utah legislature March 12.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Guy walks into a bar in Utah -- and easily gets a drink.

Come this summer, that simple scenario will become a reality: No special fees, club memberships or partitions required.

After more than 40 years, some of the strictest -- and strangest -- liquor laws in the nation are being hustled out the barroom door, yet another sign that even a state dominated by teetotaling Mormons is willing to reconsider decades-old mores if it helps the economy.

No longer will bartenders be separated from customers by a glass partition known as a "Zion Curtain." And patrons won't have to join a social club or pay a membership fee before entering bars.

"Having to pay $5 or $10 to join a club to drink any kind of alcoholic beverage is absurd," said Mark Caraway, a San Diego businessman who travels to Salt Lake City at least once a month.

Tourists frequently leave bars and restaurants here after becoming flummoxed at what it takes to get a drink. And the state's tourism industry has frequently complained that the liquor laws send lucrative conventions and skiers fleeing to neighboring Colorado.

"We were told that some places would require us to buy a license to buy alcohol. We were kind of dumbfounded by it all," said Gary Catlett, who was drinking a beer at the Park City Mountain Resort after skiing while on vacation from Houston.

While not technically requiring a license, Utah does require anyone entering a bar to be a member of the club or a member's guest. At most bars, anyone can become a member by paying a state-ordered fee for a three-week pass that costs at least $4. An annual membership costs at least $12. And a separate membership is required at each bar.

Those who live here are often just as infuriated by Utah's liquor laws, and they have developed crafty ways to bend the rules.

Buying a temporary membership allows someone to bring up to seven guests into a bar without the visitors filling out forms or paying fees. An annual membership allows an unlimited number of guests.

Many people pool memberships with their friends so they never buy more than one membership -- if any -- each year. In a state where relatively few people drink, bartenders quickly begin to recognize regular customers and usually assume they or one of their friends are members.

For years, conservative lawmakers who didn't drink said the memberships prevented bar hopping. It was far from true. There are at least two annual, highly publicized events in Salt Lake City where close to 100 people in costumes go pub crawling.

If anything, some locals say eliminating the membership requirement will spare them from sitting out in the cold waiting for friends to sponsor them, and it should free up more money.

"It'll be nice to not have them anymore. It's less money, so I'll probably be able to buy other things," said Donaca Bilyard, a Salt Lake City flight attendant who was having a drink downtown at Murphy's Bar and Grill on St. Patrick's Day.

Bilyard, originally from Richland, Wash., said the changes should make Utah look a little more normal.

Besides improving the state's $6 billion tourism industry, the effort to overhaul Utah's liquor laws is also meant to send a subtle message to the rest of the world that Utah welcomes non-Mormons.

In Utah, about 60 percent of the state's population and more than 80 percent of state lawmakers belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which tells its members to abstain from alcohol.

In the cultural divide between Mormons and non-Mormons, the church's influence on alcohol policy is among the most visible sources of contention.

In 1968, at the urging of church officials, voters killed a proposal to allow the sale of liquor in restaurants by a 2-to-1 margin.

The next year, the state's private club system as it's known today was created, primarily as a way to shield the state's Mormons from being exposed to alcohol while giving drinkers a shot at the state's heavily taxed booze, if they were willing to jump through some hoops.

The foundation for this year's changes was laid in 2004, when Republican Jon Huntsman, a former deputy assistant secretary of commerce, was elected governor.

Huntsman, a Mormon, got an earful from tourism officials about the liquor laws. But reforming the rules was politically impractical until November, when Huntsman won a second term in a landslide.

Still, Huntsman faced an uphill battle. Some lawmakers waited until the final days of the legislative session, expecting to hear opposition from the Mormon church.

When it didn't come, lawmakers could vote for the changes without much fear of backlash from Mormon constituents.

The church worked with lawmakers behind the scenes to broker a compromise that included scanning the IDs of anyone who looks younger than 35 and adopting tougher DUI penalties.

"The mechanism is not the important consideration, but rather the results," church spokesman Michael Purdy said.

Many people who live here never thought they would see the end of the private club system.

"This is a big deal for Utah," said Art Cazares, general manager of Bambara restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City. "The issue is that the out-of-state guests do feel like they're being targeted. Not only are the liquor laws weird; in some ways it sends a message that you're a bad person if you're drinking."

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