Utah bill loosens who sees booze poured but keeps barriers

FILE - Manager Dustin Humes holds wine bottles in a small room which is out of the view of patrons at Vivace Restaurant Monday, Feb. 26, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers had considered repealing a law that requires restaurants to mix alcoholic drinks out of view from patrons. Commonly known as “Zion curtains,” the mandate went into effect for restaurants in 2010 as part of a compromise when lawmakers lifted a mandate for bars to operate as members-only social clubs. The rule does not apply to restaurants that opened before 2010. The House passed a bill that keeps the practice of "Zion curtains" in place and the bill now heads to the Governor's desk. Restaurant owners and tourism officials say the law is unnecessary and hinders tourism. But some lawmakers say that removing the mandate could encourage underage drinking and influence customers to drink too much. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — In heavily Mormon Utah, a lawmaker introduced a proposal Monday allowing restaurants to stop using walls or backrooms known as “Zion Curtains” that block customers from seeing alcoholic drinks being made. Supporters say the longtime requirement helps curb underage drinking by hiding the glamour of bartending.

In exchange, restaurants in the state with some of the nation’s strictest alcohol laws would be required to install a walled-off buffer zone around bars or areas where drinks are poured. The move essentially extends the current barriers but allows adults to watch their cocktails get made.

The areas would be off-limits to those under 21 and extend at least 10 feet from the bar. Customers who enter the walls of the buffer zone would have their IDs scanned. Those seated in the dining room could still drink alcohol, but they can’t see it prepared.

Restaurants that don’t build a buffer area would have to keep or put in Zion Curtains, a reference to Utah’s teetotaler Mormon population. They are often visual barriers like frosted glass panels atop counters or a separate back room for making drinks.

Establishments also would need to post a sign near the entrance saying it is a restaurant, not a bar.

The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which plays a big role in the state’s liquor laws, appears to support the measure.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement that the bill appears to make “an admirable attempt” to address concerns about underage drinking and alcohol abuse and includes appropriate protections.

The Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association criticized the plan, warning that the buffer zones would be impossible for small restaurants, reaching to the front door of some small spaces and limiting where they could seat families.

“It’s going to put some of them out of business,” executive director Michele Corigliano said. “It’s going to make Utah look ridiculous.”

Republican Rep. Brad Wilson, who sponsors the proposal, told reporters that at least a dozen states require restaurants to have something like a 21-and-older bar area. He said Utah, like those other states, wants to keep children from sitting in bars.

He acknowledged that the changes may be tough for some restaurants, saying, “There are a few where it’s a little tricky to figure it out, so we’re trying to work through that.”

This is the latest attempt to address the controversial barriers, which have been required for decades in some form and were preserved despite a major loosening of the state’s liquor laws in 2009. Restaurants built before 2009 are generally exempt.

The Utah Restaurant Association says most of the state’s 4,000 restaurants are grandfathered in and don’t have the barriers, but the rule puts newer establishments at a disadvantage.

Wilson’s bill would require all restaurants to choose by summer 2018 to have barriers or install a buffer zone, meaning older restaurants will have to make changes.

Corigliano of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association said she’s hopeful that Wilson will make changes to the bill. If not, her group, representing 89 restaurants, would rather see Utah’s liquor laws left alone.

The proposal has not yet had a hearing. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said in January that he supports the work Wilson is doing on the bill, but his office said Monday that he had not yet reviewed it.

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