Utah bar crawl marks end of liquor restrictions

Utah bar crawl marks end of liquor restrictions

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Bartenders in Utah threw open their doors Wednesday as the state ditched a 40-year-old requirement that customers fill out an application, pay a fee and become a member of a private club before setting foot in a bar.

"It's 40 years of oppression come to an end," said Dave Morris, owner of the bar Piper Down in Salt Lake City. "There's this national perception that we don't have bars here, so hopefully this gets out there that we're open for business."

The new rules are an effort to boost the state's $7 billion-a-year tourism industry and make the state appear a little less quirky to outsiders.

In the posh ski resort town of Park City, Steve Liebroder, owner of Lindzee O'Michaels, said bar owners in town celebrated the switch at midnight.

"Tourists will actually know that you can get a drink here now. Maybe all of our business will quit going to Colorado," he said.

Meanwhile, many locals in the tourist town took the change in stride. The area has long been known for bending state rules to accomodate tourists and many locals never bought a club membership.

"I don't think it'll change too much. It's kind of open here," said Bruce Morrison, while downing a beer at No Name Saloon on Park City's historic Main Street. Morrison said he didn't remember the last time he paid for a membership in Park City.

In Salt Lake City, home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it's always been different.

To celebrate, Morris organized a 16-bar pub crawl to celebrate the novelty of being allowed into a bar without having to pay first. One crawl is set for Wednesday, another with a different lineup of bars was scheduled for Friday.

About 35 miles north, in Ogden, bartender Rich Miros at Brewskis happily scraped off lettering on the door that said the bar was a private club. The bar gets plenty of tourists from a nearby downtown hotel and skiers coming back from a day at the slopes at nearby Snowbasin.

"It's a great opportunity," he said of the change to becoming a public bar. "It needed to be changed a long time ago."

Utah has long had a host of liquor laws that befuddled newcomers, but none was as maddening as the state's private club system, created primarily to shield Mormons from alcohol while allowing drinkers to imbibe heavily taxed booze.

About 60 percent of the state's population and more than 80 percent of state lawmakers belong to the LDS Church, which tells its members to abstain from alcohol.

The Church has always helped shape alcohol policy here, and the change to the law this year was no different. Only after consultation with church leaders and an agreement that DUI penalties would be stiffened, did lawmakers make progress on the changes.

As part of the agreement, Utah also became the only state in the country to require bars to scan the ID of anyone who appears to be 35 or younger to ensure their ID is valid. Bars store the information for a week so law enforcement can inspect it.

Anyone who has an ID that doesn't properly scan is required to fill out a form logging their presence at the bar.

Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control spokeswoman Sharon Mackay said compliance officers were scouring the state Wednesday to make sure the scanners were being used and reported no problems early in the day.

While technically private, anyone willing to pay a membership fee costing at least $12 a year could come into a bar. Each bar required a separate membership.

Temporary memberships lasting up to three weeks were available for no less than $4, but limited the number of guests members could bring to seven. No memberships were needed to go into a bar that only served beer.

Anything that normalizes liquor laws for out-of-state visitors is good for Utah, said Steve Lindburg, general manager of a downtown hotel and a member of the state tourism board.

"People didn't understand. People felt isolated or even turned away," he said. "Now, that kind of becomes moot."

Still, plenty of oddities remain among Utah's liquor laws. It is the only state that bans the sale of flavored malt beverages from grocery and convenience stores and is one of only a handful states where beer can contain no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, or 4 percent by volume. Most beers contain 3.6 percent to 3.9 percent alcohol by weight. Bars and restaurants in Utah are allowed to serve full-strength beer if they buy it in bottles from the state liquor store.

"We should have real beer," said Kevin Frohmoder, who was sitting next to Morrison at No Name Saloon in Park City. "Why can't we all be one nation under God and do what everybody else does?"

Happy hours remain illegal here, and ordering a double is also a no-no. No alcoholic drink can contain more than 2.5 ounces of liquor and in new restaurants, all cocktails must be mixed out of the view of customers.

While many in the state view the changes as a step in the right direction, but not everyone's enamored of the new changes.

Just down the street from Brewskis at the Kokomo Club, which caters to locals, a handful of early-morning patrons sipped on pitchers of beers and played games of pool, while also expressing caution about what the changes might bring.

"It helped keep strange people out of here, and now that it's open to the public, there might be more fights," said Curtis Cain, a 46-year old local mechanic.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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