SALT LAKE CITY — Could Utah bars ever offer cocktails to go?
In a state famous for its exacting liquor laws, this may seem far-fetched. But a group of local bar owners is now arguing that during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering drinks to go could be the difference between staying open or shutting down for good. They're asking Gov. Gary Herbert for emergency relief, but his office says any changes will be left up to the Legislature.
Sean Neves, co-owner of the Water Witch cocktail bar in Salt Lake City, wants to be clear: He's not advocating for a Las Vegas-style free-for-all of booze on the streets. Rather, he wants bars to be able to sell drinks in sealed containers for consumers to enjoy at home.
"What we're talking about," Neves told KSL.com on Wednesday, "is the ability to create a revenue stream that helps us and gives us an important lifeline through the coronavirus pandemic, and also through the recovery."
Neves, along with friends at the downtown Quarters Arcade Bar, has created a Change.org petition to advocate for this and other changes he thinks will help the industry survive in Utah. The petition calls on Herbert to unilaterally grant bars the authority to sell drinks to go, but Herbert's spokesperson Brooke Scheffler told KSL.com the governor "has no intention of suspending any statutes or issuing an executive order to address these requests."
"These are items that will need to either be addressed in a special session or in the next general session by members of the Utah State Legislature," Scheffler said. The Legislature has held several special sessions this year and expects to hold more as it continues to grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Pandemic response has already claimed Utah mainstays like the Mazza Cafe at 9th and 9th, and Neves warns that many more establishments might close permanently without intervention.
"This is unprecedented," he said. "This is a catastrophe for restaurants and bars — it's the apocalypse, really. It's going to take us years to dig out of these holes. We all have loans, we all have investors, we all have real estate, we all have all of these different things that we've got to pay off over time, and the government solution has been, 'Here's more debt.' So there hasn't really been a great solution to how we get out of this."
This is a catastrophe for restaurants and bars — it's the apocalypse, really.
–Sean Neves, Water Witch
In addition to the main drinks-to-go proposal, here are other measures included in the petition that Neves would like Utah lawmakers to consider:
Wholesale pricing for licensees
Utah does not give a liquor-store discount to liquor license holders. Neves said Utah is the only state in the nation with such a policy. He hopes one day that retailers can buy liquor wholesale from the state at a reduced markup.
Allow 'happy hour'
"Happy hours" are common at bars in other states, when bars discount certain drinks for an allotted time each day. But happy hours are illegal in Utah; any discount offered must be available for the entire day.
"That, to me, is counterproductive," Neves said. "What you're talking about now is really, potentially, cheap drinks all day long." Though this law is intended to prevent overconsumption during happy hours, Neves argues changing the law would benefit bars and would mean those specials no longer have to last all night.
Change bar license quotas
Utah law requires there be only one bar license granted per 10,200 residents, creating what Neves said is a backlog of businesses that need one. "So we have a huge amount of competition for licenses right now, people that are ready to go," he said. "You can't apply for a license unless you have a lease in place. You're accumulating costs."
He would like to see the quota changed back to one license per 7,850 residents, where it sat until recent years.
Neves' petition also asks lawmakers to consider capping delivery fees from third-party services like GrubHub and DoorDash, and asks for additional rent relief programs for commercial leaseholders.
He said the best way for Utahns to show support is to sign his petition and contact Utah lawmakers like the governor, lieutenant governor and legislators. The petition can be found at Change.org/saveutahbars.
"We're encouraging people to respectfully contact their representatives," Neves said. He plans to post a document on the Change.org petition by Thursday that lays out his policy proposals in greater detail.
"We, as the food and beverage movement in Utah, are facing the biggest challenge in the history of our industry," Neves said. "... The time is now. We're seeing some of the names that we know and love and cherish here locally go away. It's happening now. This isn't happening in a few months; we're actually at the precipice right now, and we need as much help as we can get."