Utah may soon see more liquor licenses — and more rules for bars

The Legislature’s annual omnibus liquor bill, now being written, could end a years-long scarcity of bar licenses.

After years of Utah bar owners lining up for months to secure a scarce liquor license, the Utah Legislature may soon consider whether to loosen the rules that limit how many licenses the state issues.

Reducing the population quota that governs how many liquor licenses for bars and full-service restaurants are available in Utah is one of the provisions being discussed for the annual omnibus liquor bill, expected to be introduced in the Legislature in the next week or so.

“We don’t want to be at a place where there’s such scarcity of licenses that people feel like they have no opportunity to get one,” Rep. Jefferson Burton, R-Salem and one of the lawmakers taking the lead on alcohol policy, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

It may take some time, though, Burton said. One of the key features of the omnibus liquor bill, he said, is to add at least 100 more bar licenses and at least 200 full-service restaurant licenses over the next five to seven years.

Tiffany Clason, director of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services, told The Tribune that the state’s liquor board — which implements the booze policy the Legislature sets — has felt the scarcity as it doles out licenses.

The DABS commission has had a policy for the last few years to only award bar and full-service restaurant licenses to businesses that were deemed “ready to operate.” That means the businesses already have their site built out, their equipment purchased, their staff hired and their business permit approved.

Clason said she would like to see licenses be issued earlier in the process.

“I do think it would be nice to find that balance, where the commission has the ability to have the right number of licenses in front of them so that they can award those licenses earlier in the timeline, so that these business owners can have that surety of the license as they’re making these investments both in people and infrastructure ... to live out their dream.”

Balance, Burton said, is the key.

“We want to get to a spot where we have a sufficient number,” he said, “so they don’t become a black market commodity, but not so many that we’re floating in bar licenses.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jefferson Burton, R-Salem, listens to proceedings, during a committee meeting at the Capitol, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Burton has become the point person in the Utah Legislature on alcohol policy.

The history, and the data

State law currently says the DABS can issue only one bar license for every 10,200 Utah residents. That population quota has been in place since 2018 — raised by the Utah Legislature in 2017, in an overhaul of liquor laws that eliminated the infamous “Zion Curtain” barriers that hid cocktail preparations from restaurant patrons.

Since then, the DABS commission often had only a few bar licenses to issue each month. Some months, the board had only oneor even none — to give out, while applicants waited months in the queue for a license to become available.

In last year’s omnibus liquor bill, the Legislature offered a reprieve, granting an extra 15 bar licenses to be handed out. One commissioner called that “basically a Band-Aid” to the scarcity problem.

Last year’s bill also commissioned a study of Utah’s liquor laws, and how they compare to the 17 other jurisdictions (16 states and one county in Maryland) where the local government tightly controls liquor sales.

Burton said the study found that Utah needs to increase the number of bars and full-service restaurants, but didn’t cover social impact of having more alcohol outlets.

He said the study’s producers said there weren’t many peer-reviewed studies that showed, for example, whether more bars equal more DUIs.

“So we have a lot of anecdotal information,” Burton said, “and we have a lot of law enforcement statistics that show us that we at least need to look at that as an impact if you open more facilities.”

Utah’s limited quota of one bar per 10,200 residents, Burton said, makes the state an “outlier” among liquor-control states — where the quotas sometimes are as low as one bar for every 5,000 people.

The study, Burton said, has convinced lawmakers to increase the number of bars and full-service restaurant licenses in Utah. “But what we’re being very careful about is: What is the social impact going to be when we do that?” Burton said.

Alcohol compliance

To help alleviate that social impact, Burton said, the omnibus bill also would create three more full-time compliance positions in the State Bureau of Investigation.

The team’s job would be to go through grocery and convenience stores where alcohol is sold, and make sure the alcohol is displayed properly. The team also would check that there are no products “that shouldn’t be in there,” Burton said — such as alcoholic versions of soda brands, like Hard Mountain Dew (on sale in 19 states), that were made illegal in Utah in last year’s omnibus bill.

“We’re trying to be responsible in the way we deliver alcohol,” Burton said. “Of course, it should be available — people should have the right to access it. But we don’t want to go too overboard.”

Burton said the Legislature is also considering something called “place of last drink,” a program designed to discourage bars from overserving.

Under this proposal, when a person is arrested for a violation such as a DUI, or has been in a crash and hurt someone, the place where they were drinking that night would be entered into a database.

“Over time, if one outlet shows many of these hits, that they were the last place somebody was served, then those folks will get more scrutiny,” Burton said.

Burton said Vermont implemented such a program “fairly successfully.” However, a 2022 University of Minnesota study found that in Minnesota, where it has been in use for a decade, there was “little evidence that the [’place of last drink’] initiative, as currently implemented, was associated with reductions in traffic crashes.”

Striking a balance

The overarching philosophy behind the omnibus bill, Burton said, is to balance alcohol access with safety.

“We want to be pragmatic,” Burton said. “We understand Utah’s demographic is changing, but we want to keep Utah, Utah. It’s a safe and good place to live. And so we want to balance all of this.”

Clason echoed that sentiment. “What no one wants is to have more licenses on the street, so to speak, at the detriment of having more DUI-related deaths or tragedies, or an increase in underage drinking,” Clason said.

Burton keeps a photo on his desk, of 13-year-old Eli Mitchell of West Jordan, who was struck and killed by a drunken driver in 2022 while riding his bike in a crosswalk. Burton said crafting liquor policy involves “emotional issues,” but that legislators try to “be logical” throughout the process.

“That’s what we’re trying to do with this bill,” he said, “is just be as logical as we can, balancing prevention with access.”