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SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative leader unveiled a new bill Tuesday to remove the so-called “Zion Curtain” requirement that restaurants shield diners from liquor bottles and drink dispensing while also making changes to Utah’s liquor laws intended to reduce drunken driving and underage and binge drinking.
“This bill is about modernizing our alcohol policies so we can reflect opportunities to reduce drunk driving and underage drinking. And if at the same time, if we can be helpful to the hospitality industry, we want to do that,” House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told KSL-TV.
Wilson said the bill, which is still being drafted, is the result of discussions over the past year with a number of stakeholders, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, restaurants and others that have an interest in Utah’s liquor laws.
He said the bill will boost enforcement and training while increasing the markup on state-controlled alcohol sales from 86 percent to 87 percent to make more money available for alcohol abuse programs and preventing underage drinking.
The bill, which will be sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, will also make some changes in restaurants that serve alcohol, “including removing the Zion Curtain, and having that come down,” Wilson said.
Instead of a physical barrier blocking alcohol bottles and drink preparation, he said there will be “an area adjacent to the bar where minors won’t be able to sit. Adults will still be able to go there and get dinner at a restaurant and order a drink.”
There is “tenative agreement from not all, but many of those groups, that this is the right policy to put forward,” Wilson said. He said there is “tentative enthusiasm with some concerns” from the hospitality industry.
“Anytime you’re talking about increased training or regulation or markup, they want to know more about that. But I think they understand the balance we’re trying to achieve here between responsible alcohol policy that seems to be working but being friendly to the business community,” he said.
Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the LDS Church, said in a statement that “on this issue, the church has historically worked to support legislation that advances the safety and well-being of all state residents, particularly minors, and to avoid the societal costs and harms that often result from alcohol excess consumption and abuse, underage drinking and DUIs.”
He continued: “The benefits of Utah’s alcohol laws — which have served Utah well for decades — are often overlooked. Utah has been well below the national average in devastating alcohol-related societal costs like underage drinking, alcohol-related traffic deaths and binge drinking.”
“Any discussion of change in Utah’s alcohol policy should require clear evidence that the proposed changes will not increase these kinds of negative societal costs. Particular policy elements are means to this end, and should be secondary to preserving the well-being of individuals and families in our communities,” Hawkins said.
Wilson said the bill should be ready to be introduced at the 2017 Legislature in about a week. The 45-day session began Monday.
State law require restaurants to separate the pouring and mixing of alcoholic drinks from diners. Past attempts to change the law have been unsuccessful, even after a former House speaker, the late Becky Lockhart, described the barriers as “weird” several years ago and said they made the state less attractive to new businesses.
Wilson said the provisions of the bill mitigate the need for the barriers by further reducing the risks associated with drinking. He said Utah already has the lowest rate of underage drinking in the country.
“At the end of the day, we believe we are advancing alcohol policy to reduce drunk driving, underage drinking and these other costs to society,” Wilson said, “at the same time as helping our hospitality industry and making some changes to modernize our policies.”
Contributing: Ladd Egan
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