SALT LAKE CITY – A Utah lawmaker introduced a proposal Monday allowing restaurants to get rid of barriers known as "Zion Curtains" that are designed to visually obscure the making of drinks. But in exchange, they'd be required to install a buffer zone around bars or areas where drinks are prepared.
The buffer zones would have to be 10 feet from the rest of the dining room or a waiting area and walled off and be off limits to anyone under 21 years old. Restaurants would have to scan the IDs of customers who want to sit in that area, though customers over 21 could still consume alcohol if they're seated in the dining room or dispensing area.
Restaurants that choose not to build a buffer area would instead have to keep or build Zion Curtains, which are a reference to Utah's teetotaler Mormon population. Zion Curtains are often visual barriers like frosted glass panels atop counters or a separate back room for making drinks.
The Utah-based Mormon church instructs members to abstain from drinking alcohol and weighs in on the state's liquor rules. A message seeking comment from the Mormon church was not immediately returned Monday.
The Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association criticized the plan, warning the buffer zones would be impossible for small restaurants.
Kaysville Republican Rep. Brad Wilson, who sponsors the proposal, told reporters at a midday news conference that at least a dozen states already 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, especially smaller venues, 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 partitions.
The barrier requirement has been in place for decades in some form and was 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 4,000 restaurants in Utah are grandfathered in and don't have the barriers, but the rule is unfairly applied and disadvantages newer establishments.
Wilson's bill would require all restaurants to choose by summer of 2018 to have a Zion Curtain, or instead install a buffer zone, meaning some of the older restaurants grandfathered in before 2009 will have to make changes.
Supporters have contended that the Zion Curtain keeps restaurants from looking like bars and curbs underage drinking by hiding what they say is glamorous bartending.
But for several years, a small group of lawmakers have tried to repeal the Zion Curtain rules, as the hospitality industry and other critics argue they serve no purpose and make restaurant operations difficult.
Michele Corigliano, the executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, said the 10-foot buffer area, which she called a "Zion Moat," won't work for small restaurants.
"It's going to put some of them out of business," she said. "It's going to make Utah look ridiculous. Even more ridiculous than the Zion Curtain."
Corigliano said she's hopeful that Wilson will make changes to the bill. If not, her group, representing 89 Salt Lake County restaurants, would rather see Utah's liquor laws be left alone.
The proposal has not yet had a hearing. Republican Gov. Gary Hebert said in January he supports the work Wilson is doing on the bill, but his office said Monday that he had not yet reviewed it.
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