Utah's private clubs fade into history Wednesday

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Starting Wednesday, Utah's private clubs won't be so private anymore.

That's when the new law eliminating private club membership requirements takes effect, turning the state's equivalent of bars into, well, bars.

No longer will customers have to fill out applications and pay fees before they can enter what's now a social club, the only establishment in Utah where alcohol can be served without food.

Private clubs "now have the ability to open their doors to anyone," said Sam Granato, chairman of the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. "The whole reality of why we did this is to show, to use the phrase, the world is welcome here."

While the state isn't launching an advertising campaign to revive that 2002 Winter Olympics message, Utah's economic development and tourism officials are getting the word out that the liquor laws have changed.

Highlighted in the state's "Business in Utah 2009" magazine is a two-paragraph notice saying lawmakers and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. "have worked very closely together to update and normalize Utah's sometimes confusing liquor laws."

The magazine, which goes out to some 20,000 business executives nationwide, says visitors will be able to access bars "without having to obtain a 'membership' as in years past." All that's required, the magazine explained, is "a valid identification if someone does not appear to be clearly of age to drink."

That's because the new law requires clubs to use ID scanners to check the drivers' licenses of anyone who appears under 35 years old. Licenses are scanned into the devices, and information must be kept for seven days.

Granato said the department is already checking to ensure clubs have the mandatory scanners and are ready to use them starting Wednesday. But he said the state isn't interested in tracking how many clubs choose to maintain memberships, which is allowable under the new law.

"The market will dictate what they do," said Granato, who is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. "I think the majority will open up. They won't stay private. But certain clubs will want to keep their uniqueness or their clientele."

Only five clubs, including one catering to a largely gay clientele and two in the southern part of the state, told the Utah Hospitality Association earlier this year they intended to continue a members-only policy, association spokeswoman Lisa Marcy said.

Both Granato and Marcy predicted the public won't notice much difference once the law changes.

"It's not going to increase the drinking. But it's going to make it easier — or more palatable, if you will — for people not to have to spend for the yearly membership," Granato said.

Marcy agreed. "It's not going to change people's habits," she said. "It's not going to be the end of the world that some people on the other side thought it would be and it's also not going to be a free-for-all."

So-called "pub crawls" planned among a dozen or more clubs to celebrate the new law, she suggested, should be seen as a novelty.

"There's some intrigue," Marcy said. "I've heard people feel like they have a chance to be normal. They also view it as historical."

The clubs involved in Wednesday's bar-hopping event, co-sponsored by the association, have already been warned this is not the time to promote overindulgence, she said.

"Let's not draw unnecessary attention," Marcy said, especially since initial opponents of the change in the liquor law will be watching closely.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said recently he hopes such events aren't "the harbinger of things to come." He said he will be "collecting data" by contacting the participating clubs afterward.

Waddoups said he is concerned that anyone on a pub crawl will feel obligated to order a drink at every stop. "Overindulging is what I'm worried about."

E-MAIL: lisa@desnews.com

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