Getting into a bar in Utah is about to become a lot easier.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Jon Huntsman agreed to eliminate the state’s much-criticized private club system.
Utah is the only state in the country that requires someone to fill out an application and pay a fee for the right to enter a bar unless he or she is the guest of a member on the premises.
Under the agreement approved unanimously by the state Senate, bars could open their doors to the public July 1. A nearly identical version was approved 66-8 in the state House.
“This is a big moment, I think, for our state. This is a crossroads,” said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, sponsor of one of the bills. “I think we shed some of the misconceptions about our liquor laws while actually strengthening them and modernizing them.”
Lawmakers have until March 12, when this year’s legislative session ends, to give their final approval to the bills.
Huntsman has been pushing to eliminate the 40-year-old system in an effort to boost tourism and make Utah seem a little less odd to outsiders.
In exchange, the state’s DUI laws will become more strict, bar owners’ liability coverage will double and anyone who looks younger than 35 will have their driver’s licenses scanned before entering a bar to make sure they’re 21 or older and their ID is real. Bars would retain on site for seven days an electronic record of those who have their licenses scanned.
The Utah Hospitality Association, which represents the state’s bar industry, had been pushing for the private club system’s demise and was prepared to take it to the vote of a people through a referendum if lawmakers didn’t come to an agreement.
Bars have long complained that memberships are an unnecessary hassle that only annoy customers and distract bouncers who they say have bigger things to worry about than membership forms.
However, several morality groups, conservative lawmakers and Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Utah chapter had contended that memberships reduced underage drinking and driving under the influence because it made getting into multiple bars in a single day expensive and time consuming.
Others are opposed to anything that could be construed as liberalizing liquor laws.
“I represent very conservative people in the state who are concerned about anything we might do that would provide access to alcohol for people who shouldn’t have access, as in minors,” said Rep. Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland, who voted against the changes. “I understand the need for that to increase tourism and make Utah less of an unusual state, but I just don’t know how that’s going to happen.”
In Utah, anyone who pays at least $4 and fills out an application at the door can become a club member for three weeks. An annual membership costs at least $12. A separate membership is required for each bar.
Even some the most ardent opponents of liberalizing Utah’s liquor laws had acquiesced in eliminating private clubs, as long as scanners are used to detect fake IDs and more stringent DUI penalties are put in place, such as confiscating the vehicles of those who are found guilty of committing multiple DUIs.
“How much easier at the door? Whew. Phenomenal. Now they can concentrate on underage drinking and are you over 21,'” said Mark Livingston, an association member and owner of a Clearfield bar. “You’re not only filling out paperwork, you’re having to explain (the laws) to a lot of people, especially in the resort areas. These people look at you like you’re from a different planet, so that really distracts you from what you should be doing in the first place.”
The membership requirement has long been considered a headache for locals and a deterrent to tourists who have frequently chosen to go skiing in Colorado instead of Utah because of the state’s perplexing liquor laws.
The state’s $6 billion-a-year tourism industry greeted the agreement between Huntsman, state House and Senate leaders with a sigh of relief.
“I think it’s great that it essentially says to tourists, to travelers, that you are welcome here and that we’re excited to host you and Utah’s a normal place,” said Utah Travel Industry Coalition executive director Danny Richardson.
Bars could choose to remain private clubs, but few are expected to do so.
“We’re moving toward much greater normalization today of our alcohol policy,” Huntsman said.
Another of Utah’s quirky liquor laws is also on the chopping block.
Utah is the only state that prohibits bartenders from serving cocktails directly over bar counters in restaurants. A partition usually made of glass known as a Zion Curtain serves as a separator.
Under the deal lawmakers have reached, the Zion Curtain could come down in existing restaurants and minors would be prohibited from sitting at bar counters.
However, new restaurants would be prohibited from having cocktails stored or poured at bar counters because some lawmakers are concerned they’ll entice children to take up drinking.
Children would be allowed to sit at those bar counters and mixed drinks would have to be prepared out of sight in restaurants.
The Utah Restaurant Association said the proposal is good for existing restaurants, but would discourage many national chains from coming to the state in the future.
“In speaking with a couple of them we (asked) ‘How many new restaurants will you plan in Utah?’ And the answer was zero,” said Melva Sine, the association’s president. “Our No. 1 goal is consistency. The thing that concerns us most is that new restaurants that build will have different rules and regulations than restaurants that are in existence today and we still feel there may be some confusion.”
Under the proposal, a new restaurant that moves into a building where a previous restaurant was housed wouldn’t have to hide the preparation of mixed drinks.
The private club system as it’s known today and the Zion Curtain got their start 40 years ago. At the urging of the Mormon church, voters in 1968 killed an initiative to allow the sale of liquor by the drink in restaurants.
Subsequent changes to state law and federal court rulings combined to mold Utah’s liquor laws into their current form.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still wields plenty of influence in the state and has been a key party in the negotiations over the changes in liquor laws. Not once did the church publicly oppose eliminating private clubs, giving many lawmakers the freedom to seriously consider changes without fear of alienating many of their constituents.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is committed to reasonable regulations on alcohol that reduce underage drinking, over consumption, and drunk driving. In asserting these principles, we are pleased to have joined with members of the Utah State Legislature, the governor, those representing the hospitality industry and restaurants, and others in addressing the interests of a broad spectrum of Utah citizens,” the church said in a statement.
About 60 percent of the state’s population belongs to the Mormon church, which tells its members to shun alcohol. Huntsman and between 80 percent and 90 percent of lawmakers are church members.
MADD’s Utah chapter said it’s pleased that DUI penalties will become stiffer under the package, but it would like the state to keep track of everyone who drinks and not just those who look younger than 35.
“We’d like to see it even further because it’s pretty serious business to over-serve somebody having two, three times the legal limit and then commit automobile homicide. There needs to be an audit trail for public safety,” said Art Brown, MADD’s Utah chapter president. “We are moving from private clubs to open bars. Open bars are very problematic all across this country and are a major source of DUIs.”
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