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Utah lawmakers unveil alcohol law reform bill, still a work in progress

SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers unveiled a much-anticipated Utah alcohol law reform bill Monday, though several key provisions remain in flux less than two weeks before the Legislature adjourns.

HB442 would allow restaurants to remove the so-called "Zion Curtain" that shields customers from liquor mixing and pouring if they install a 10-foot buffer between the area and where children are seated. People in the buffer zone would be subject to electronic age verification.

The Senate sponsor of the massive bill, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said he believes it “creates much better alcohol policy for the state of Utah,” in part by more clearly defining where children can be in the bar area of restaurants. He said it also solves “some of the problems with the Zion Curtain” created when liquor preparation areas in some restaurants were "grandfathered in" under previous legislation.

The bottom line, Stevenson said, is “children can’t be in a bar area. That’s the end of it.” He said he understands the new 10-foot buffer the law would establish “might be devastating to a very small restaurant,” but noted that portion of the bill won’t take effect until next year to allow for further changes to the law if needed.

One of the sticking points for the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association is the 400 restaurants that were exempt from the 2009 law requiring a separate alcohol preparation area.

Under the bill, those restaurants would have to erect the barrier or put in the 10-foot buffer zone.

"I think this is just a first stab at the bill. I think there will be some changes going forward," said Steve Hunter, a Salt Lake restaurant association lobbyist who has worked with House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, on the bill.

Discussions are ongoing, Hunter said.

Wilson toured several restaurants Friday to get their perspective on proposed changes to the law.

A morning news conference on the bill was canceled, Stevenson said, because of meetings scheduled in the afternoon to work on details with some associations. Lawmakers said they have discussed the bill with some 18 stakeholders, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The LDS Church reiterated Monday that it has historically worked to support legislation that advances the safety and well-being of all residents, particularly minors, and to avoid the societal costs and harms that often result from alcohol excess consumption and abuse, underage drinking, and DUIs.

"In its current form, this bill appears to be an admirable attempt to address those concerns and provide appropriate protections. We will watch the legislative discussion with interest in the coming days," said LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins.

Wilson took issue with a new nickname for the buffer when he joined the daily Senate availability Monday.

“I think the ‘moat’ is offensive,” Wilson said, and has “very little to do in my mind with a buffer zone.” He said the nickname creates “a false narrative that Utah is the only place that cares” about separating alcohol preparation from where minors sit, listing a number of other states with similar requirements.

Wilson said the bill will give restaurants with the shield the option of keeping it up or replacing it with the new buffer zone. Restaurants that were not required to install a shield between customers and drink preparations will have to choose between doing so or creating the buffer zone.

Last week, Wilson said there seems to be agreement among Utah restaurateurs on the bill. While the Utah Restaurant Association has said it supports the legislation, the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association isn't on board.

Melva Sine, Utah Restaurant Association executive director, said no one is getting everything they want in the bill. But, she said, the pain would be short-lived as people get used to the new law.

The Salt Lake association also has issues with the plan to do away with the "dining club" license to dispense alcohol. Dining clubs are somewhere between restaurants and bars in terms of the amount of alcohol and food they're allowed to serve.

The bill requires the state's approximately 100 dining clubs to choose to be a restaurant or a bar.

Hunter says owners are concerned because the proposed law would change how they run their businesses.

“This is very good, solid alcohol policy,” Stevenson said. “There is no such thing as normal alcohol policy” among the 50 states, describing them all as “abnormal.”

The bill also targets the display of “alco-pops, or fruity beers or whatever you want to call them” now sold in grocery stores, Stevenson said. Such products, which he said have been displayed in produce sections, would be limited to a store’s beer section or a stand-alone display to ensure they don’t “end up in homes where they’re not wanted.”

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the bill contains “some great concepts from my point of view.”

But Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said he's worried about the effect on so-called mom-and-pop restaurants that already operate on a small margin.

The bill also takes away the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s ability to grant waivers to bars and restaurants near schools and churches, instead reducing the distance from 600 feet to 450 feet of a “normal pedestrian route.”

The bill also would:

• Increase the markup on alcoholic beverages.

• Create two school-based underage drinking prevention programs for eighth- and 10th-graders.

• Require restaurants and bars to display a sign that states whether they are a restaurant or a bar.

• Extend the hours during which a restaurant may sell alcohol on a weekend or a state or federal holiday.

• Require a training program for retail managers and retail owners.