Utah ushers in a new era of choice for bar patrons

Associated Press/June 30, 2009

Salt Lake City - For the last 40 years, dropping into a bar in Utah has been a complicated affair: Patrons have to fill out an application, pay a fee and become a member before they can go in for a drink.

It is one of several restrictive rules governing alcohol consumption in Utah that made the heavily Mormon state one of the toughest places in the nation to get a drink.

But some of that will change on Wednesday when a new state law kicks in eliminating the need for people to become members of bars to go inside.

"I've owned clubs for eight years now, and I never thought this was going to happen," said Jason Rasmussen, owner of A Bar Named Sue. "This is huge."

Bars and drinkers are so thrilled by the new rules that they are planning what is expected to be the largest pub crawl in state history Wednesday, complete with free shuttle buses and taxis to 16 bars to commemorate what some are calling Private Club Independence Day.

The change is being made in an effort to make the state more appealing to tourists and to give businesses and employees considering moving here one fewer reason to stay away.

"We're rolling out the welcome mat to the world," Gov. Jon Huntsman, a nondrinking Mormon, said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Huntsman wanted to scrap the private club system to improve economic development ever since taking office in 2005, but it wasn't politically feasible until he won a second term in November by the largest margin in state history.

Huntsman had pledged not to seek a third term and was willing to spend political capital in a state primarily comprised of teetotalers to usher in the changes.

About 60 percent of Utah residents and more than 80 percent of state lawmakers belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which tells its members to abstain from alcohol and has always helped shape alcohol policy in the state.

"This is going to be quite the legacy for him," said Scott Beck, CEO of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Center.

Beck said the top reason Salt Lake City loses convention business is because of a perception of a lack of nightlife and entertainment that was exacerbated by the state's private club system.

Although technically private, Utah's bars have been open to anyone willing to fill out the membership form and pay a fee. Still, it wasn't uncommon to see a parade of tourists walk out of a bar when told it was for members only and that they'd have to buy a membership to get in, even if only to order a hamburger to go or use the restroom.

Customers have been required to buy a separate membership at every bar, costing at least $12 per year per bar. Temporary memberships lasting up to three weeks cost at least $4 per bar.

"The word private is just by nature a tough word," Beck said. "There's no two ways about it."

The private club system was developed primarily as a way to shield Mormons from being exposed to alcohol after the defeat of an initiative in 1968 that would have allowed the sale of liquor by the drink in restaurants.

This year's changes only came after church officials said they wouldn't oppose them and lawmakers agreed to strengthen penalties for driving under the influence.

As part of the agreement, Utah will also become the only state to require bars to electronically scan the identification card of anyone who appears to be younger than 35 before they're allowed to enter. Bars will electronically store the information obtained from the ID, including name and address, for inspection by law enforcement.

The Utah Hospitality Association, which represents the state's bars, opposed storing customers' information out of privacy concerns, but agreed in order to eliminate the private club system.

It is unclear how many people will go to bars around the state on Wednesday, but count 26-year-old administrative assistant Lacey Poulsen among those who will be exploring new ones.

Poulsen said she plans on getting together with 10 or 15 friends after work to hit up four or five bars downtown.

"It'll be nice to be able to go to a couple bars without spending $20 or $25 (on memberships)," she said. "I thought I was going to have to deal with it for a long time. It's nice to feel like we're part of the rest of the world."

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