Mor­mon Utah re­lax­ing liquor laws in bid to en­tice tourists

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY VA­LERIE RICHARDSON

Utah’s liquor laws are set to re­lax July 1, bring­ing them more in line with those of the rest of the na­tion, but don’t ex­pect Salt Lake City to morph into Sin City any time soon.

“It’s not like we have to turn into Las Ve­gas to at­tract con­ven­tion and tourist busi­ness,” said Scott Beck, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Salt Lake City Con­ven­tion and Vis­i­tors Bureau. “It’s not like we need to walk around with 30-ounce mar­gar­i­tas around our necks.”

Utah made his­tory this year by elim­i­nat­ing its 40-year-old pri­vate-club sys­tem, which re­quired would-be drinkers to pur­chase a mem­ber­ship. The move is ex­pected to boost tourism and con­ven­tion busi­ness as word of the state’s less-re­stric­tive laws spreads to other states.

In ex­change for the move, the state Leg­is­la­ture tight­ened drunken driv­ing laws and re­quired bars to scan the driver’s li­censes of any­one who ap­pears younger than 35.

What con­cerns some of­fi­cials is that the state did noth­ing to loosen its grip on the num­ber of liquor li­censes that can be is­sued.

Utah links the num­ber of liquor li­censes for bars and restau­rants to the state’s pop­u­la­tion. The state cur­rently can award a to­tal of 361 li­censes for bars and 546 for restau­rants that serve beer, wine and liquor.

As of last week, there were 14 ap­pli­cants for eight re­main­ing li­censes avail­able for bars, also known as clubs, said Sharon Mackay, spokes­woman for the Utah Depart­ment of Al­co­holic Bev­er­age Con­trol.

The sit­u­a­tion for restau­rants was only slightly bet­ter, with 18 li­censes still avail­able to pro­vide beer, wine and liquor at es­tab­lish­ments that also serve food.

“Right now we’re get­ting very close to the quota,” Mrs. Mackay said.

Any in­crease in the num­ber of liquor li­censes avail­able must be ap­proved by the Leg­is­la­ture, which al­ready sur­prised many res­i­dents this year by re­mov­ing some of its long­time im­ped­i­ments to pub­lic dis­plays of im­bib­ing.

The leg­is­la­ture agreed to tear down the so-called “Zion Cur­tain,” the glass par­ti­tion that sep­a­rated bar­tenders from cus­tomers in a setup sim­i­lar to all­night gas sta­tions and con­ve­nience stores. The move al­lows bar­tenders to serve their pa­trons di­rectly over the bar, in­stead of hav­ing to walk around the par­ti­tion.

More sig­nif­i­cantly, law­mak­ers ended the sys­tem that classified hard-liquor bars as clubs that could only serve mem­bers, re­quir­ing cus­tomers to fill out an ap­pli­ca­tion and pay a small fee be­fore they could be served. Still, cer­tain fea­tures of the law gave savvy Utahns ways to work around it.

For ex­am­ple, those who didn’t be­long to the clubs could also gain ad­mis­sion as the guest of a spon­sor­ing club mem­ber, which some­times led to one club mem­ber “spon­sor­ing” every­one in the bar.

Both laws were unique to Utah and could be traced to the state’s strong ties to the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints, which ad­vises its mem­bers to ab­stain from drink­ing.

Lisa Marcy, coun­sel to the Utah Hos­pi­tal­ity As­so­ci­a­tion, which lob­bied for the changes, said that in­creas­ing the num­ber of li­censes this year would have been po­lit­i­cally im­pos­si­ble.

“That would have been shoot­ing for too much,” Ms. Marcy said. “We didn’t think we could do both. We needed to keep our eye on one or the other.”

Many an­a­lysts as­sumed that any changes in Utah’s liquor laws would be po­lit­i­cally im­pos­si­ble, given the church’s strong statewide in­flu­ence. What made it pos­si­ble was the com­bi­na­tion of the 2002 Salt Lake City Win­ter Olympics, which ex­panded the city’s en­ter­tain­ment district and con­ven­tion cen­ter, and a gov­er­nor re­cep­tive to loos­en­ing the laws.

“We were told at the beginning of 2007, ‘Don’t even try to elim­i­nate the pri­vate clubs,’ “ Ms. Marcy said. “But we were al­most de­funct be­fore this, so we de­cided, ‘Hey, what do we have to lose?’ ”

The hope is that con­ven­tion and tourism busi­ness will in­crease as word spreads of Utah’s nor­mal­ized liquor laws, Mr. Beck said.

“This re­ally sends the mes­sage that Salt Lake City, with its 1.2 mil­lion res­i­dents, is a lot more like other cities than un­like other cities,” he said.


No more ‘Zion Cur­tain’: Bar­tender Mark Can­nella serves busi­ness­man Jef­frey Holtz a drink at Can­nella’s restau­rant in Salt Lake City.

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