No membership needed: Utah bars to open to public

Associated Press/March 9, 2009

Salt Lake City - Getting into a bar in Utah is about to become a lot easier.

Gov. Jon Huntsman and state House and Senate leaders agreed Monday to eliminate the state's much-criticized private club system, which requires someone to fill out an application and pay a fee for the right to enter a bar unless he or she is the guest of a member.

Utah, with a government historically dominated by Mormon church members, is the only state in the country with such a law.

Under the agreement approved unanimously late Monday by the state Senate, bars could open their doors to the public July 1. A nearly identical version was approved 66-8 in the state House.

"This is a big moment, I think, for our state. This is a crossroads," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper. "I think we shed some of the misconceptions about our liquor laws while actually strengthening them and modernizing them."

Huntsman has been pushing to eliminate the 40-year-old system in an effort to boost the state's $6 billion-a-year tourism industry and make Utah seem a little less odd to outsiders. The Utah Travel Industry Coalition expressed relief at the deal.

"I think it's great that it essentially says to tourists, to travelers, that you are welcome here and that we're excited to host you and Utah's a normal place," said Danny Richardson, the coalition's executive director.

Typically, a visitor to a bar currently can expect to pay at least $4 for a membership lasting three weeks or at least $12 for an annual membership. A separate membership is required for each bar and patrons can fill out an application at the door.

Bars have long complained that memberships are an unnecessary hassle that only annoy customers and distract bouncers who they say have bigger things to worry about than membership forms.

However, some conservative groups and lawmakers, and the state's Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter say memberships reduce underage drinking and driving under the influence because it made getting into multiple bars in a single day expensive and time consuming.

"I represent very conservative people in the state who are concerned about anything we might do that would provide access to alcohol for people who shouldn't have access, as in minors," said Rep. Ronda Rudd Menlove, R-Garland, who voted against the changes. "I understand the need for that to increase tourism and make Utah less of an unusual state, but I just don't know how that's going to happen."

In exchange for getting rid of memberships, the state's DUI laws will become more strict and people who appear younger than 35 will have their driver's licenses scanned before entering a bar to make sure they're 21 or older and their ID is real.

Mark Livingston, who owns a bar in Clearfield, said the new standards would make it easier for bars to prevent underage drinking by simplifying the process at bar entrances.

"You're not only filling out paperwork, you're having to explain (the laws) to a lot of people, especially in the resort areas. These people look at you like you're from a different planet, so that really distracts you from what you should be doing in the first place."

Bars could choose to remain private clubs, but few are expected to do so.

Another of Utah's quirky liquor laws is also on the chopping block - one that prohibits bartenders in restaurants from handing alcoholic drinks directly to customers sitting at the bar. Instead, they are separated from the customers by a partition and must walk around it to hand the drink to the customer.

The partition is popularly known as the Zion Curtain, a reference to Utah's religious history as the Land of Zion.

The private club system as it's known today and the Zion Curtain got their start 40 years ago. At the urging of the Mormon church, voters in 1968 killed an initiative to allow the sale of liquor by the drink in restaurants.

Subsequent changes to state law and federal court rulings combined to mold Utah's liquor laws into their current form.

About 60 percent of the state's population belongs to the Mormon church, which tells its members to shun alcohol. Huntsman and between 80 percent and 90 percent of lawmakers are church members.

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