Dozens of Utah bar owners — who say they are just days away from “economic ruin” — have asked Gov. Gary Herbert to remove the state health order that bans alcohol service after 10 p.m.
After operating under the order for more than three weeks, these once profitable local establishments “are on the verge of going out of business,” owners wrote in a letter to the governor. “And their employees are struggling to make ends meet, receiving a fraction of the tips they once made, and experiencing dramatic cuts to their hours and wages.”
Initially, the owners of 25 bars signed the Dec. 2 letter. But Kirk Bengtzen, owner of Twist Bar and Bistro, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that 15 more owners — and counting — want to add their name to the written protest.
The 10 p.m. alcohol restriction for restaurants and bars was put into place on Nov. 10 and was initially supposed to last two weeks. But it has been extended indefinitely.
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“The restriction,” the letter explains, is devastating the bar industry in Utah, has caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost business revenues over the past month, is harming our employees, and is effectively closing many Utah businesses.”
Bars owners says the state is in a position to help the industry, as Utah still has more than $300 million in pandemic funding available through the federal CARES Act. If the state doesn’t spend the money before Dec. 31, it must be returned to the federal treasury.
Bengtzen said using the money to help the hospitality industry — easily the hardest hit by the pandemic — seems like a good place to spend the money.
“Let’s give these hospitality workers some type of compensation,” he said, “so they don’t lose their homes and cars and can provide food for their families.”
During his weekly COVID-19 news conference, Herbert said spending of the CARES money is currently under review, but it’s not up to him to decide how the money is divvied up.
“Bars and restaurants have been part of the hardest hit areas of our economy,” Herbert said. “And it’s really a matter of what the legislature is willing to do.”
In their letter, struggling bar owners wonder why they have been given more restrictions by the state, when they already are following the strict sanitation and social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There is simply no need to prohibit alcohol service after 10 p.m.,” the letter states, “with the other restrictions in place.”
Stopping alcohol service at 10 p.m. has forced drinking underground, the letter says, with many groups leaving the bars at 10 p.m and going to warehouses and homes where none of the safety precautions are happening.
Allowing bars to serve alcohol until the usual 1 a.m. deadline, owners wrote, “prevents these unregulated gatherings and allows bars to control alcohol service with their trained professional staff.”
Under federal and state orders, bars and restaurants are allowed to operate if servers wear masks at all times; if patrons wear face coverings when they are not seated or actively eating or drinking and if there is a 6-foot distance between tables.
Bar owners says businesses that are not following those restrictions, should be be cited rather than punish all bars, the vast majority of which are following COVID-19 health restrictions.
While the coronavirus has affected bars and restaurants across the state, those in downtown Salt Lake City have taken the biggest hit during the pandemic. These businesses typically serve office workers, music, theater and sports patrons, business travelers and tourists.
Today, most employees still work from home and large events remain canceled.
The majority of bars in Utah make most of their revenue between 9 pm and 1 a.m. In addition, there are many bars that do not open for business until 9 p.m. effectively shuttering them for good.
“The 10 p.m. alcohol cut off has therefore effectively closed these ‘late bars’ to the public,” the letter said, “and has made it virtually impossible for the rest of the bar industry in high transmission areas to continue to employ their wait staff, security professionals, managers, and bartenders.