Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. served up the most broad-based changes to Utah's alcohol policy in four decades Monday, signing legislation doing away with the state's one-of-a-kind private clubs law and changing the way restaurants can serve drinks.
Since 1969, patrons at Utah's bars have been required to be members of a so-called "private club," a construct designed with the strong involvement and backing of the LDS Church and aimed at restricting the flow of liquor.
"We made a little bit of history today," Huntsman said after signing the bill in The New Yorker, an upscale bar in downtown Salt Lake City.
Tourism officials in the state said the change will have an impact on the state's $6 billion a year tourism industry, but you won't see ads enticing tourists to "Come Get Drunk In Utah."
"It puts us on a more level playing field with some of our competition. We've got the best snow and the best access so the only thing people could beat us up with is Utah's liquor laws," said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, the marketing arm for Utah's 13 ski resorts. "We'll think carefully how we'll message this, we'll be subtle because we're not going to become a Las Vegas."
Shawn Stinson, spokesman for the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there is still discussion on how to market the changes. But he said he has done about 15 interviews with media outlets around the country, and word of the change is spreading.
"We're wrestling with the idea" of how to market the shift, Stinson said. "You don't necessarily want to point out your previous flaws per se or exacerbate the previous misconceptions of Utah."
The 213-page bill was hammered out in negotiations between the Governor's Office, the Legislature, restaurant and bar owners, and representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"The marketplace was demanding a change, you had some people with the political will to get it done and the stars aligned," Huntsman said.
The new law does away with Utah's private club requirement and allows restaurants to tear down the so-called Zion Curtain that prevents servers from passing a drink across the restaurant bar. It also increases the potential liability for bars that serve patrons who then cause accidents and allows liquor stores to remain open on election days.
"Now we can truly say the world is welcome here," said Jack Gallivan, a former publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune and advocate for liquor reform.
Chris Holt and Amy Randall, patrons at Murphy's in downtown Salt Lake, said they were happy with the change.
"I think it's an awesome step in the right direction," said Holt.
"It's not going to be so much about Utah and its weird drinking law," said Randall.
Some bar owners, however, are opting to keep their private club status, either to keep the fees they charge for memberships or to allow them to exercise some discretion over who they serve.
Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said there are problems with the law. Her group has expressed concern about requirements placed on new restaurants -- specifically that they not mix drinks in the sight of underage patrons -- and existing restaurants that are grandfathered in.
"We're going to be working on it," she said. "This was a good step."
When Huntsman was first elected in 2004, he named a series of task forces to study state policy, including a panel looking at liquor control. Tom Barberi, who was on the task force, said the group's top recommendation was to do away with private clubs.
"That was the No. 1 suggestion," said Barberi. "I've been attempting to legislate adulthood in the state of Utah for 35 years and I never thought I'd live to see the day."
The transition team also recommended a more diverse mix of views on the state liquor commission, and in 2007, Huntsman appointed one of those transition team members, Gordon Strachan.
Last summer, the commission held public hearings on private clubs, but before it finished its recommendations to the Legislature, Huntsman quietly told the board his office would be pressing the issue.
"The governor wanted to see this happen," said Sam Granato, chairman of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. "It's a good thing. Abolishing private clubs will bring Utah into the 21st century. It will have an impact on our economy, and it'll make us more competitive with the surrounding states."
The Utah Hospitality Association, representing private club owners, had filed a petition to launch a statewide initiative to essentially allow public bars.
"We knew it would be a contentious issue at the polls but the Legislature had tabled it so many times that we decided there was no point in waiting any longer," said the group's attorney, Lisa Marcy. "We were surprised when the governor jumped on the issue so quickly, even though we knew that the time was right."
The tourism industry and economic development groups had been saying that private clubs confused visitors and harmed the state's image.
In addition, the leadership had changed within the LDS Church, a key player for any changes to state liquor laws, said Tom Guinney, co-owner of the Gastronomy chain of restaurants, including The New Yorker.
General Authority James E. Faust, vice chairman of a group that opposed a 1968 initiative on public bars, passed away in 2007. And President Gordon B. Hinckley, a church adviser on the so-called liquor-by-the-drink initiative, died last year.
Behind the scenes, the church was very involved and a crucial player in the negotiations with the governor and legislators.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is committed to reasonable regulations on alcohol that reduce underage drinking, over consumption, and drunk driving," said church spokesman Scott Trotter. "In asserting these principles, we are pleased to have joined with members of the Utah State Legislature, the Governor, those representing the hospitality industry and restaurants, and others in addressing the interests of a broad spectrum of Utah citizens."
"I was once told by a very influential church lobbyist that he'd never live to see the day that private clubs would be abolished, so I thought I'd never live to see that day either," said Bob Brown, owner of the downtown club Cheers To You. "Obviously, I'm surprised and happy that its time has come."
» Existing restaurants will be able to tear down the "Zion Curtain," the partition that keeps restaurant servers from passing a drink across the bar. (Effective May 12)
» New restaurants will have to comply with approved floor plans that remove the mixing of drinks from the view of those under age 21.
» Existing restaurants can qualify for $30,000 in grants for renovations to move their drink mixing away from those under 21 years old.
» Removes requirement that state liquor stores put a sticker on every bottle sold.
» New liquor license requirements for convention centers and a new resort license will take effect.
» Requirement that bar patrons be a member of a "private club" will be eliminated, although bars can remain private clubs if they choose. (Effective July 1, 2009)
» Bars will be required to scan the driver license of any patron who appears to be under 35 years old.
» State liquor stores will be open on election days.
» Liability limit for bars that serve drinks to intoxicated patrons involved in accidents will increase to as much as $2 million -- the highest in the nation. (Effective July 1, 2010)