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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that makes several changes to Utah’s alcohol laws, including elimination of a barrier that shields customers from liquor mixing and preparation if proprietors create a buffer between the bar and children’s seating areas, won approval of a House committee Wednesday.
The House Business and Labor Committee voted unanimously to send HB442 to the full House for its consideration.
"I think the bill moves us in a more clear direction, a more a consistent direction. Is it perfect? Probably not,” said House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, the bill's sponsor.
Wilson said there is more work to be done on the 156-page bill, the latest version made public Wednesday morning.
"What we all care about most is having good alcohol policy. I think there's a ton of good in this bill," he said.
Wilson said the bill would likely be debated in the House on Friday, early next week at the latest.
The proposed legislation would create a clear distinction between restaurants and bars and eventually do away with dining club licenses.
“We’re taking everyone to the same place. Right now we have three different restaurant licenses. We have a dining club, a grandfathered restaurant and a restaurant, which are the new ones that have a separate storage and dispensing area. Over next five years, we’ll migrate all of them to the same place where they have three options in terms of how they want to dispense alcohol,” Wilson said.
Newer establishments “that have the ‘Zion curtain’ can keep it if they want,” or establish a 10-foot perimeter from drink preparation areas where minors cannot sit or erect a 42-inch half wall that separates the drink preparation area from dining space, he said.
“We’re going to give them five years to make the transition,” Wilson said.
Dining clubs would have until 2018 to comply with the state’s “intent to dine” requirement, he said.
“Most of them are pubs that are going to have to start selling a little more food,” Wilson said, meaning 70 percent of their sales will need to come from food.
Most dining clubs are near that threshold now, he said, but about 20 percent will need to make menu changes to comply.
Dining clubs have occupied a middle ground between restaurants and bars in terms of how much food they’re allowed to serve. There are about 100 such establishments in Utah.
The bill would also implement a flat licensing fee of $1,650 and says a restaurant cannot be located within 450 feet walking distance of a “community location,” such as a school or a church.
Melva Sine of the Utah Restaurant Association said different tiers of licensure have been confusing, and the organization appreciates the opportunity to phase in changes.
"We want everyone to have a level playing field and play by the same rules," Sine said. The association lent its support to the bill.
There were mixed reactions to the bill in a packed committee room Wednesday morning. Some who testified before the committee said it didn't fully suit their needs or wants and could be expensive to implement. But nearly all who spoke credited Wilson for working with a wide array of stakeholders, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Others said the bill was so long and complex that lawmakers needed to slow down their deliberations.
And others said it offers options to a law that has hurt tourism and the state's image.
Eric Slaymaker, founder of Wingers restaurants, thanked Wilson, noting that it was "good to get past this issue, finally."
But retailers who will be required to confine alcoholic beverages to specific areas in stores said it was problematic, particularly for small stores.
Wilson said the change is needed. His presentation included a photograph of a store stocked with Valentine's Day cookies on one shelf and alcoholic beverages on the next.
The grandmother of a constituent inadvertently purchased a beverage she believed was root beer but was instead a malted beverage. Unfortunately, the woman served the beverage to her grandchildren before discovering her error, he said.
Others spoke in opposition and urged lawmakers not to change the laws because they are effective in protecting children.
Laura Bunker, of Family Policy Resource, urged no change to current laws. Utah's current barrier law is akin to a fence at the top of a cliff, she said.
Utah has more children per capita, “and they should be our priority,” she said. Existing barriers serve as a “visual cue that alcohol is different from soft drinks and juice.”
But others said the barrier requirement has posed challenges for managers who are unable have a direct line of sight to employees preparing alcoholic beverages.
“As a consumer of alcohol, I like to see what’s being put in my drink as it is being made. It’s a dangerous situation when that can’t be controlled by myself. How do I know the alcohol being put in there wasn’t more than it should have been? I can’t see it,” said Bryan O’Meara, a restaurant owner.
Earlier this week, the LDS Church reiterated that it has historically worked to support legislation that advances the safety and well-being of all residents, particularly minors, and to avoid the societal costs and harms that often result from excess consumption and abuse of alcohol, underage drinking and DUIs.
"In its current form, this bill appears to be an admirable attempt to address those concerns and provide appropriate protections. We will watch the legislative discussion with interest in the coming days," LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said Monday.
When asked for additional comment Wednesday, Hawkins referred the Deseret News to the earlier statement.
Gov. Gary Herbert’s office was reviewing the bill and had no immediate comment, said spokeswoman Kirsten Rappleye.
The bill also would:
• Increase the markup on alcoholic beverages by 2 percent.
• Create two school-based underage drinking prevention programs for eighth- and 10th-graders.
• Require restaurants and bars to display a sign that states whether they are a restaurant or a bar.
• Extend the hours during which a restaurant may sell alcohol on a weekend or a state or federal holiday.
• Require a training program for retail managers and retail owners.