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10 businesses sue Utah governor over 10 p.m. liquor sales cutoff

Utah latest state to see court battle over last call mandate

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SALT LAKE CITY — Last call is three hours earlier than normal under statewide coronavirus restrictions, a mandate that several bars and restaurants are calling unconstitutional.

Ten establishments along the Wasatch Front are suing Utah’s governor and the head of its health department, contending they are struggling to keep the lights on after a Nov. 9 health order cutting off liquor sales at 10 p.m.

The effect of the directive “is to push already struggling restaurant and bar industry to the brink of collapse,” the businesses argue in a lawsuit filed Thursday in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court. It names two defendants: Gov. Gary Herbert and Richard Saunders, the interim executive director of the Utah Department of Health.

One of the bars, the Sun Trapp in downtown Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News last week that it has laid off half its staff.

The other businesses filing suit are those operating Area 51, Twist, Willies Lounge and Big Willies in Salt Lake City; Club 90 in Sandy; The Break in South Jordan and West Valley City; and Wing Nutz in Orem and Spanish Fork.

The businesses contend the measure is unnecessary because other restrictions, like social-distance and mask requirements, are already in place. They note the state has federal relief money on hand, but claim it hasn’t offered any to them to help cover the difference.

In response to earlier criticism of the order, the Utah Department of Health has said that COVID-19 spreads easily in crowded, indoor environments where large groups are not wearing masks.

“This is precisely the type of environment that is created late at night in bars, where social distancing becomes nearly impossible,” the department said.

But many of the bars are already too small for large gatherings and have social distancing restrictions in place, the lawsuit contends. It says the heavily regulated industry is accustomed to state regulations and doesn’t hesitate to enforce pandemic precautions.

Under the order, bars in high-transmission areas are permitted to remain open past 10 p.m., but no one can order a drink. The state extended the order on Dec. 8, and it’s set to expire Dec. 17.

The lawsuit says Area 51 opens at 9 p.m., meaning it can only serve drinks for one hour.

The group sued after it said the governor failed to respond to its request for a meeting on the issue. The bars said the the order violates their constitutional right to due process and discriminates against businesses serving alcohol but not others. They’re seeking a court injunction to prohibit the state from similar future orders.

Utah isn’t alone, however. Other states and nations have issued similar orders to combat roaring COVID-19 infections. Business owners in Ohio and Colorado have fought the rules in court, but judges ultimately sided against them.

The mandate came on the heels of existing pandemic restrictions limiting the number of patrons and a previous health order that shut down bars at 10 p.m.

The governor’s office declined comment, saying it doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits.