Some solutions were suggested for dealing with Utah's new liquor reform law that goes into effect April 25, but officials from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control mostly sympathized with restaurant liquor license holders at a recent meeting.
The law, passed by the 1988 Legislature, allows waiters and waitresses to serve alcohol directly to customers' tables. Customers now have to get up from their tables and purchase alcohol at a liquor store within the restaurant.While the law makes it easier to get a drink, it also gives restaurants more control over how much alcohol customers consume. The law requires that customers be served only one drink at a time and forbids advertising alcohol on menus.
There was little controversy over the legislation among lawmakers. There was, however, plenty of confusion displayed during the nearly two-hour meeting over how to interpret the law.
"We as a department didn't have anything to do with this bill," Director Ken Wynn said at the beginning of the meeting held at the Salt Lake City Library on Friday.
Wynn, along with Dennis Kellen, department operations manager, and Rick Golden, department compliance auditor, repeated that statement many times throughout the meeting, one of several scheduled to help restaurants comply with the new law.
The department's interpretation of the law will be contained in regulations expected to be drafted by the end of the month. However, because of the public hearings required, it will be about two months before the regulations become effective.
The tone of the meeting lightened considerably when Kellen assured the audience of about 50 restaurant owners and employees that there would be a "grace period" before the new law would be strictly enforced. Wynn said after the meeting that strict enforcement would probably not begin until after the regulations take effect.
In the meantime, Kellen offered a variety of ways of coping with some of the ambiguities of the new law. For example, the bill states that a drink must be served at a table. How does that affect customers who want to drink in a bar area while they wait to be seated?
Kellen's answer: Make sure the waiting area has tables. What if customers choose to stand and hold their drinks in their hands? That's OK, as long as they remain within a "reasonable proximity" of a table.
The audience responded to those types of answers with a variety of "what-if' scenarios, including some that were resolved only after the three officials conferred among themselves.
One section of the new law that the department will not attempt to clarify further in the regulations deals with allowing a customer only one drink at a time.
Members of the audience came up with a wide variety of potential problems.