SALT LAKE CITY - In heavily Mormon Utah, a lawmaker introduced a proposal Monday allowing restaurants to stop using walls or backrooms known as "Zion Curtains" that block customers from seeing alcoholic drinks being made. Supporters say the longtime requirement helps curb underage drinking by hiding the glamour of bartending.
In exchange, restaurants in the state with some of the nation's strictest alcohol laws would be required to install a buffer zone around bars or areas where drinks are poured. A buffer zone extending 10 feet from the bar would be off-limits to those under 21. But the area could still be in full view of the rest of the restaurant, bill sponsor Republican Rep. Brad Wilson clarified Monday night.
Wilson said he's working on a change to allow a third option to create a smaller 5- to 6-foot buffer zone that's partitioned off by a half wall about 3.5 feet tall.
Customers who enter the buffer zones that appear to be under 35 years old would have their IDs scanned. Those seated in the dining room could still drink alcohol, but depending on the restaurant, they may or may not be able to see it prepared.
Restaurants that don't create a buffer area would have to keep or put in Zion Curtains, a reference to Utah's teetotaler Mormon population. They are often visual barriers like frosted glass panels atop counters or a separate back room for making drinks.
The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which plays a big role in the state's liquor laws, appears to support the measure.
Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement that the bill appears to make "an admirable attempt" to address concerns about underage drinking and alcohol abuse and includes appropriate protections.
The Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association criticized the plan, warning that the buffer zones would be impossible for small restaurants, reaching to the front door of some small spaces and limiting where they could seat families.
"It's going to put some of them out of business," executive director Michele Corigliano said. "It's going to make Utah look ridiculous."
Wilson told reporters earlier Monday that at least a dozen states require restaurants to have something like a 21-and-older bar area. He said Utah, like those other states, wants to keep children from sitting in bars.
He acknowledged that the changes may be tough for some restaurants, saying, "There are a few where it's a little tricky to figure it out, so we're trying to work through that."
This is the latest attempt to address the controversial barriers, which have been required for decades in some form and were preserved despite a major loosening of the state's liquor laws in 2009. Restaurants built before 2009 are generally exempt.
The Utah Restaurant Association says most of the state's 4,000 restaurants are grandfathered in and don't have the barriers, but the rule puts newer establishments at a disadvantage.
Wilson's bill currently requires all restaurants to choose by summer 2018 to have barriers or install a buffer zone, meaning older restaurants will have to make changes.
But Wilson said Monday night he's working on a change that would allow a five-year grace period for those older restaurants or restaurants holding a particular type of dining license that currently allows them to make more money from the sale of alcohol than food alone.
Corigliano of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association said Monday night that Wilson has made helpful changes but her group wants to see the latest adjustments in writing and still has other concerns. She said if they can't be addressed, her group, representing 89 restaurants, would rather see Utah's liquor laws left alone.
The proposal has not yet had a hearing. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said in January that he supports the work Wilson is doing on the bill, but his office said Monday that he had not yet reviewed it.
This story has been updated to correct that the current proposal would allow restaurants to choose a walled-off Zion Curtain or 10-foot, open buffer zone, while yet-to-be-released changes would allow for a walled-off buffer. An earlier version referred to all buffer zones as walled-off.
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