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Senate panel moves to study alcohol barrier in Utah restaurants

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 16 2016 11:50 a.m. MST

FILE: Bar Tender, Philip Trickey serves up an alcoholic drink (Jim Beam and Coke) at the Red Rock Restaurant and Brewing Pub in downtown Salt Lake.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A state senator's attempt to tear down the so-called "Zion Curtain" in Utah restaurants hit a wall Tuesday.

The Senate Business and Labor Committee voted to study the proposal over the summer rather than consider this year removing the 7-foot high barrier that shields diners from alcohol pouring areas in restaurants.

Majority Republicans earlier said there wouldn't be any action on what has become a perennial issue at the Legislature. That prompted Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis to draft his own legislation, SB141.

"It simply doesn't work. It's awkward. It's annoying. It's miserable. It creates a weirdness level that we don't deserve, and it ought to be torn down," he told the committee.

Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said the barrier creates a situation where someone could slip a drug into a woman's drink and argued that it hurts tourism, though he offered no evidence to support those assertions.

Separate alcohol storage and dispensing areas, along with requirements to serve food with alcohol and limit hours of alcohol service, are intended to distinguish restaurants from bars. Those policies were reaffirmed in 2009 as part of a legislative compromise that did away with requiring people to buy a private club membership to enter a bar.

The law applies to restaurants built after 2009, meaning only a small percentage of eateries have what has sometimes disparagingly come to be known as the "Zion Curtain."

Stan Rasmussen, Sutherland Institute public affairs director, told the committee the law was put in place to keep restaurants from morphing into bars. Taking down the partition would lead to more promotion and sales of alcohol in violation of state law, he said.

United Families International President Laura Bunker said the separate preparation area "shields children from the glamour of bartending."

Former MADD Utah President Art Brown said the wall helps prevent underage drinking.

"Bars and kids simply don't mix," he said. "When kids see drinking alcohol is pleasurable, they are going to give it a try."

Melva Sine, Utah Restaurant Association executive director, said of the state's 4,600 restaurants about 1,200 have liquor licenses. Those restaurants sell 7 percent to 9 percent of the alcohol sold in Utah, she said.

"I don't really want the restaurant industry to be represented as being some sort of alcohol mongering group that's out there just to make a bunch of money at the cost of anything," she said.

Sine said the law creates unfair competition among restaurants. "We just have a confusion, and so many regulations that don't apply equally," she said.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Wood Cross, said he's concerned that the liquor partition applies only to 8 percent of restaurants in Salt Lake City due to the grandfather provision.

The Legislature does need to look at Utah's liquor laws, which he said do have some "idiosyncrasies."

"I'm kind of tired of hearing how weird Utah alcohol laws are," he said before reading a litany of "weird" laws from states around the country. Weiler noted that Utah patterned the separation preparation area law after Wyoming.

"I don't hear of anybody who refuses to go on vacation to Jackson Hole because of their weird liquor laws. It seems like it's a Utah thing," he said.

Dabakis said he suspected the committee would vote to study the issue. He said he hopes some "plain, old drinkers" would be involved in those discussion.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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