SALT LAKE CITY — A state lawmaker who wants to tear down the so-called "Zion curtain" in Utah restaurants says there's nothing to show that separating the pouring of alcoholic drinks and dining areas curbs underage drinking.
"If I had any evidence that the Zion wall reduced teen drinking, I'd be there," said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden. "But there isn't."
The House Revenue and Taxation Committee gave HB228 a favorable recommendation Tuesday, but Wilcox expects the measure to change before it reaches the House floor.
"This bill is under heavy negotiation as we speak," he said.
Sen. John Valentine, who has carried much of the alcohol-related legislation over the years, said the bill in its current form won't pass the Senate. The Orem Republican said it fails to address the need for increased enforcement of alcohol laws should the barrier be removed.
"We don't want our restaurants looking like bars," said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, questioned the point of the "Zion curtain" and said she supports the bill.
"I think it's weird and I'm not a drinker," Lockhart said. "But I grew up away, not here in Utah. I always thought that was a little strange."
The speaker said she doesn't understand why seeing a drink being mixed would tempt a non-drinker.
"I have a hard time making that connection," she said, suggesting that parents use the opportunity to tell their children their views on alcohol.
"Can't you use that as a teaching opportunity?" Lockhart asked.
Two restaurant owners spoke in favor of the bill during the committee meeting. No one spoke against it, though some legislators expressed concern about teenagers being exposed to and drinking alcohol.
"I have some empathy for the Zion curtain, even though it's ugly," said Rep. Earl Tanner, R-West Jordan.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said young people who drink before their brains are fully developed are more likely to fall into addiction.
"It is not a theory," Hutchings said. "It is proven scientific fact."
Valentine said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies and others showed a "wetter" environment where drinking is more socially acceptable or visible gives rise to more youth drinking on or off premises.
Since 2009, the state has required restaurants to construct the 7-foot barriers to shield young people from liquor displays and the mixing of alcoholic beverages.
Wilcox said the law isn't applied evenly because eateries that opened before then weren't required to build a wall, which makes it difficult for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to enforce.
He called the law "silly" and a "model of inconsistency" that has created an uneven playing field. It especially hurts small, locally owned restaurants that often have limited seating capacity, Wilcox said.
"Not only does it take up floor space, it's an inconvenience for us," said Alex Montanez, owner of Rovali's Ristorante on Ogden's Historic 25th Street.
Montanez said after a DABC inspector told him the wall he built wasn't good enough, he had to put up a fake olive tree to better hide the alcohol pouring area. He said his restaurant is so narrow that people must walk single file in the section near the barrier.
Blake Ballard, who owns the fine dining restaurant Spark in Provo, said his staff makes alcoholic drinks from a closet that doubles as his office. He said his employees refer to it as the "cloffice."
Young people, Ballard said, don't go into a fine dining establishment to buy a $40 bottle of wine to get drunk on. They try to get alcohol from convenience stores and other outlets, he said.
Valentine said there's a way to resolve inequities in the law: The state could require all restaurants, including those open before 2009, to have separate preparation areas for alcohol and food, which would take extensive remodeling in some cases.
"I think that's harsh," he said. "I don't think the restaurant industry wants to see that."
Restaurants sell only 3 percent of the state's alcohol, said Melva Sine, executive director of the Utah Restaurant Association.
"The problem is not the restaurant industry in terms of selling alcohol," Sine said, adding that some restaurants voluntarily keep liquor out of sight. "We are culturally responsible in the state of Utah."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche