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A long-awaited bill to reform Utah's liquor laws and possibly do away with the 7-foot-tall "Zion Curtain" to keep children from seeing drinks mixed in restaurants was greeted Monday with an immediate surge of controversy and industry opposition.
House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, abruptly canceled a news conference that he had called to explain his 144-page HB442, saying it "ran into some whitewater."
One big cause for concern is that rather than eliminating the Zion Curtain, it retains it as one option for restaurants, which would be faced with the choice of erecting the barrier or creating a minor-free buffer around bar areas.
Wilson acknowledged that concerns about how to change the Zion Curtain rules are still a major sticking point, and said he's still trying to resolve worries among more than a dozen competing interest groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Wilson said he has no idea if the bill could pass this year nor if it will even have a hearing.
On the second day of the Legislature 34 days ago Wilson announced the bill was coming and then he hoped it would be released within a week. Now, 10 days are left in the session, and Wilson said the bill is still a work in progress.
HB442 would eliminate the grandfathered protection of restaurants that weren't required to build Zion Curtains because they were serving alcohol before the requirement was enacted. "We're saying you need to pick one of these two paths: We either need separate storage and dispensing [a Zion Curtain], or you need to have a buffer zone" of 10 feet from a bar where no children could sit.
That buffer zone is referred to by some as a Zion Moat, a nickname Wilson finds offensive.
The lawmaker notes the bill could create a hardship for many grandfathered restaurants that are so small that a buffer zone could prevent seating families with children in most of their establishments. But he said it also makes sense for the state not to allow children to sit near a bar.
"States all over the county have said it's not appropriate for minors to sit right next to a bar. We're just trying to adopt a similar policy to reflect that," Wilson said, as he ticked off at least 13 states with such restrictions.
"But for some reason, in Utah it's offensive for us to try to separate minors from a bar. I'm not sure why that is. I guess it helps sell newspapers."
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, co-sponsor of the bill, said it makes clear "children just can't be in a bar area. … So that's the end of it.
Wilson said the Zion Curtain actually is a small part of the bill seeking many reforms. "There's a lot of provisions in here that make significant steps in the right direction about alcohol policy," including better programs for prevention of youth drinking and training for drinking establishments.
He previously said enhanced prevention and enforcement were needed to persuade others to support removing the controversial Zion Curtain. The LDS Church, for example, had said in recent years that Utah's liquor laws worked well and should not be changed.
Sean Neves, president of the Utah State Bartenders Guild, called many of the changes "deeply troubling," especially the clause relating to grandfathered restaurants. "This could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for some licensees," he said. "In short, it could put them out of business."
Neves said restaurant and bar owners have been working for months in "good faith" to find a compromise that prevents overconsumption and underage drinking but also provides a healthy business environment for an industry that provides thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenues and taxes for the state and local communities.
"The folks on the 'other side' of the table seem to have pounced on this opportunity to rewrite huge sections of Utah code," he said. "Hence, we take no steps forward and 15 steps back. As written, this language is a threat to the very existence of the hospitality industry in Utah."
Michele Corigliano, executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, agreed. "As it stands now, there are a lot of things [in the bill] that we could never support."
Other provisions include boosting the state markup on liquor by 2 percentage points, from 86 percent to 88 percent. The markup on heavy beer sold in liquor stores would go up from 64.5 percent to 66.5 percent.
Wilson has said that increase would pay for other drinking prevention and training programs in the bill.
The bill, for example, calls for new prevention programs for youths in eighth and 10th grades.
It calls for training programs for owners and managers of bars and restaurants, and employees who are caught selling to underage youths. It would also create a program to better track each violation of a sale to a minor.
The measure would do away with alcohol licenses to dining clubs and would force them to convert to licenses for a bar or restaurant the only general licenses available.
HB442 would reduce the distance that an alcohol-serving restaurant may be located from a school, church, park or library from 600 feet to 450 feet for the shortest ordinary pedestrian path. It takes away the power of the state to offer variances to that rule.
It does, however, grandfather in any current licensees.
The bill also would require electronic age verification for people who sit in the "dispensing location" in restaurants, requiring that they be at least age 21.
"It's the bill of something for everyone," Stevenson said.
"Except," said Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, "doing what we really want it to do."
Wilson said he has no idea if he has enough support to pass the bill. "I want good alcohol policy," he said. "I'm totally fine if this goes nowhere. If this passes and people like it and it's good policy, that's fine as well."
He added, "If this isn't the right policy, we'll abandon it today and move onto other issues."
Stevenson said, "You're going to find that good legislation in the state of Utah takes more than one year to accomplish."
Still, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, was somewhat optimistic for the bill. "There are some great concepts here," he said, adding that it could move forward.
Reporter Kathy Stephenson contributed to this report.