‘This gives us a fighting chance’ — Utah lifts alcohol curfew at bars, restaurants

Gov. Gary Herbert orders the removal as hospitality industry agrees to coronavirus safety measures. Lawsuit over the curfew likely to go away as bars and restaurants able to serve later.

Utah’s 10 p.m. curfew on alcohol service at bars and restaurants will be lifted starting Friday, the governor announced, but with the longer service hours come stricter social distancing standards for patrons.

In short, no walking around when you’re sipping a beer, a cocktail or a glass of wine.

The hospitality industry is among the hardest hit during the pandemic, Herbert said Thursday during the final monthly news conference of his gubernatorial tenure. Lifting the alcohol restriction, he added, “will give them some relief.”

Struggling bar owners are pleased that the curfew will be gone before the start of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays — typically among the the most profitable times in the industry. But, they say, returning to a 1 a.m. “last call” won’t solve the deep debt most have had to take on to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

“At least this gives us a fighting chance,” said Jesse Valdez, co-owner, with his wife, Rachelle, of Club 90 in Sandy. “At least now our hands are untied and I can fight for my business.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephanie Morrison pours a drink at Club 90 in Sandy, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Gov. Gary Herbert said Utah's 10 p.m. curfew on alcohol service at bars and restaurants will be lifted starting Friday.

Dave Morris, owner of Salt Lake City’s Piper Down and Handlebar, said he was “relieved and a little bit anxious” about the decision.

“Now we have to get the word out to people,” he said. “For more than a month we’ve told them not to come out after 10 p.m.”

The 10 p.m. restriction for restaurants and bars took hold Nov. 10 and was initially supposed to last two weeks. The state extended it as COVID-19 cases surged across Utah.

Last week, a group of Utah bar and restaurant owners sued Herbert and Richard Saunders, the interim executive director of the Utah Department of Health, to block the health order, saying it was an “unreasonable restriction” on their businesses and one that is “causing irreparable and distinct harms” to the establishments and their employees.

The measure sought no damages; only a lifting of the curfew. That lawsuit now likely becomes moot.

The group will wait, however, to see the exact wording of the health department order before officially withdrawing the complaint, said Kirk Bengtzen, owner of Twist Bar in Salt Lake City, who led the legal challenge.

Bengtzen said many bar owners were just weeks away from closing but isn’t sure if lifting the 10 p.m. alcohol restriction will be enough to save some businesses. Most had just barely dug out of the financial hole created by the March COVID-19 shutdown when the 10 p.m. restriction took force.

“We are grateful he did it now,” Bengtzen said. “Hopefully we can stay in business.”

A recent telephone poll, conducted by the Utah Restaurant Association, showed losses “in excess of 50% since the emergency order,” said President Melva Sine. “We were on an upward trajectory, but it [the 10 p.m. emergency order] took us back to March pandemic levels.”

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.

The latter requirement has cut seating capacity by more than 50% in some businesses.

Herbert met with leaders of the Utah Restaurant Association and others in the hospitality industry earlier this week to learn what could be done to help them.

Bar and restaurant owners vowed to enforce the coronavirus safety measures. In addition, as part of a compromise, patrons at restaurants and bars must remain stationary when they are eating and drinking, Herbert said. “They can’t have a glass in hand and walk through the facility.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Customers at Club 90 in Sandy, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Gov. Gary Herbert said Utah's 10 p.m. curfew on alcohol service at bars and restaurants will be lifted starting Friday.

“Because of the commitment they [bar and restaurant owners] made,” he added Thursday, “effective tomorrow the alcohol restriction....will be lifted.”

Herbert said the state order took effect because the casual atmosphere “made them more conducive to the spread of the coronavirus.”

But after looking at state data, officials determined that if bar employees and patrons followed the prescribed guidelines, “they are not any more risky than going to a traditional restaurant where alcohol is served,” the governor said. “That is why we eliminated the restriction.”

Herbert’s announcement did not include any information about additional financial help for the industry. State officials are likely waiting for a proposed federal relief package.