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SALT LAKE CITY — State alcohol regulators are gearing up for some of the most sweeping changes to Utah liquor laws in several years
Although allowing restaurants options to replace the so-called Zion Curtain is the most visible part, HB442 contains a long list of policy revisions.
"There are a lot of moving parts with this legislation," said Nina McDermott, Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control director of compliance, licensing and enforcement.
McDermott recited the changes for Alcohol Beverage Control Commission members on Tuesday, including a 2 percent increase in liquor markups, extending alcohol serving hours and phasing out dining clubs.
Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill Tuesday, calling the bill a "major updating of our already strong and effective regulations on alcohol."
The governor noted that it provides increased funding for education and enforcement efforts to prevent underage drinking and impaired driving. It also makes restaurant licensing more equitable while giving them several options and time to comply with the law, he said.
Removing the 'Zion curtain'
The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is receiving lots of questions from restaurants about what they need to do to remove the 7-foot high barrier that shields customers from drink preparation areas.
Under the bill, eateries could install a 42-inch-high partition at least 5 feet from the bar or create a 10-foot buffer zone around the bar. They could also leave the barrier in place. Restaurants, however, cannot simply tear down the wall without an inspection and permission from the department.
"Our biggest concern is that people will go and make a modification without approval, which would result in administrative fines and action for unlawful dispensing areas," McDermott said.
To accommodate restaurants that want to make the change when the law becomes effective July 1, the alcohol department is setting a May 9 deadline for applications.
"If we did them on first-come, first-served, we'd be driving back and forth to St. George in between now and July," McDermott said.
The alcohol department has eight compliance officers and is training two auditors to work as inspectors as well, she said. Each officer maintains about 250 locations that serve alcohol.
Michele Corigliano, executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, said she expects many restaurants will move the barrier and that the alcohol department has come up with a good process to help them.
"It is a good idea because restaurants could tear it down without having the right things in place, which could cost them more money in the long run," she said.
Corigliano said the law allows them to make minor changes to take away the barrier.
"It's been rough," she said. "I think that the Zion Curtain really does make it more difficult for business owners to do business."
Overall, some restaurants will be better off as a result of the new law, while others will not.
Because the bill does away with dining clubs, those establishments must decide whether to become restaurants or bars in the next five years. Dining clubs have occupied a middle ground between the two in terms of how much food they’re required to serve.
The law also permits alcohol to be served with brunch starting at 10:30 a.m. — an hour earlier than allowed now.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said alcohol policy impacts many diverse interests in the state.
"We think that this bill has satisfied the needs of everyone that we met with as much as we possibly could," he told the alcohol commission. He said lawmakers will see how the policies shake out over the next few years and could make changes as the need arises.
Stevenson also made a point of telling the commission that the new .05 percent DUI threshold "has nothing to do" with HB442. He said it was a surprise that the measure moved as fast as it did.
"I'm not sure a lot of us gave it much credence to begin with," he said.