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Utah bars to open to public

Brock Vergakis
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

SALT LAKE CITY ” Getting into a bar in Utah is about to become a lot easier.

Legislative leaders agreed Monday to eliminate the state’s much-criticized private club system, which requires someone to fill out an application and pay a fee for the right to enter a bar.

Bars could open their doors to the public July 1.

Utah is the only state in the country that requires someone to be a member of a private club or the guest of one to enter a bar.

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 Gov. Jon Huntsman, House and Senate leaders with a welcome 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 bar counters because some lawmakers are concerned they’ll entice children to take up drinking. Originally, Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, wanted to require restaurants to build 10-foot-high walls to hide the mixing of drinks.

After public outrage and strong resistance from the restaurant industry, Valentine abandoned the proposal.

“This bill tears down the walls. Many of you talked about the fact that I build a 10-foot wall or that we have the Zion’s Curtain. To Utah, take down that wall,” said Valentine, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 187, which now includes most of the liquor law changes.

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.

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.

Lawmakers have until Thursday to approve the changes, when this year’s legislative session ends.


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