SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A bill allowing Utah restaurants to stop shielding diners from seeing alcoholic drinks being prepared is headed to Gov. Gary Herbert's desk after winning final approval Wednesday from state lawmakers. He has said he supports it.
The proposal would ease a longtime quirky rule in the Mormon-majority state that requires restaurant workers to mix and pour drinks behind a barrier, typically a translucent glass wall or a back room. Diners can still enjoy their drinks in full view.
The barriers, nicknamed "Zion Curtain" as a reference to the teetotaling members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have been around in some form for a decade and are currently required for restaurants generally built after 2009.
Senators voted 20-9 to approve the measure, with a bipartisan mix of lawmakers supporting and opposing. Minutes later, Utah's House of Representatives signed off on the changes, sending it to Herbert.
The proposal to loosen the rules is a compromise from the state's last major relaxing of liquor laws and has been long targeted by the hospitality industry — which says the barriers are strange, unfairly applied and don't serve a purpose.
Supporters of the barrier rule say they keep restaurants from resembling bars and prevent children from being introduced to "alcohol culture" and what they have described as the glamour of bartending.
The proposal approved Wednesday would allow restaurants to stop using the barriers if they set up a child-free buffer zone around their bar: either a 10-foot open area or a 5-foot zone marked off by something like a half-wall or railing.
Some restaurants would have to start complying by summer 2018, with all complying by summer 2022.
The Republican governor said Tuesday that he supports the bill. Herbert has also said there's no evidence that children are any more likely to drink alcohol if they see alcoholic drinks being prepared and that he thinks Utah will eventually do away with the barriers entirely.
The Utah Restaurant Association and Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association support the bill, and the proposal also has key backing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The church often weighs in on Utah liquor laws, seeing them as a key moral and public safety issue. Church officials have said the proposal from Republican Rep. Brad Wilson and Republican Sen. Jerry Stevenson makes an "admirable attempt" to address concerns about underage drinking and alcohol abuse and includes appropriate protections.
In addition to addressing restaurant barriers, Wilson's bill also raises the state markup on alcohol two percentage points — to 88 percent for liquor and wine and 66.5 for beer with more than 4 percent of alcohol by volume that's only sold in state-run stores.
The proposal also includes more restrictions on the labeling of hard ciders and alcohol-infused sodas to ensure they're not mistaken for regular soda. It creates new alcohol abuse training programs and allows alcohol to be served earlier on weekends and holidays, starting at 10:30 a.m. instead of 11:30 a.m.