Cox admin spares Moab’s historic Woody’s Tavern, but Robert Gehrke argues Utah liquor policy is still broken

Unless the Utah Legislature changes its mindset on regulating liquor in Utah, future licensees will find themselves in a similar predicament.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Woody's Tavern, pictured Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, was saved from near-certain closure last week after Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and the head of the state's liquor agency decided to drop an enforcement action over a technical violation.

Things looked bleak. Like a condemned man, strapped in the electric chair kind of bleak.

The owners of Woody’s Tavern were bracing for a hearing before the state liquor commission Tuesday over whether the historic Moab watering hole would lose its liquor license and essentially be forced to close down after more than six decades in operation.

But then, the day before Thanksgiving, Woody’s got an unexpected reprieve from the governor.

“Sometimes government needs a little common sense,” Gov. Spencer Cox said through a spokeswoman.

It didn’t always look like common sense would prevail, however. The whole saga started when co-owner Shari Beck planned to close on July 3 for a thorough cleaning of the tavern, but a pair of pumps that moved raw sewage to the city sewer lines failed, causing waste to back up. On top of that, the air conditioning failed, leaving the tavern with 106-degree heat and a stinky sewage problem to deal with.

The tavern reopened for business on July 15, but Utah law technically prohibits a licensee from closing for more than 10 days without notifying the Department of Alcohol Beverage Services a week in advance. In emergencies, taverns can notify the agency by phone, but Beck told me she was so focused on fixing the immediate issues at the tavern, she never considered she might be violating the law.

When the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services regulators found out, they took action against Woody’s and the punishment under the law was explicit: automatic forfeiture of the bar’s liquor license.

The Tuesday hearing before the liquor commission seemed like it was mostly a formality. Just a month ago, commissioners expressed sympathy to the owner of an Ogden establishment that had closed because of a kitchen fire, then took the license, because the law said they had to.

If Woody’s lost its license, it would join the countless local establishments that have disappeared from the burgeoning tourist haven and take a piece of local history with it.

Then something unexpected happened.

On Nov. 22, DABS Executive Director Tiffany Clason sent a letter to the DABS commissioners, notifying commissioners that, “after much deliberation, and in consultation with the governor,” she was dropping the enforcement action against Woody’s.

The bar had not notified the department, but posted a notice for patrons which, Clason wrote, didn’t meet the legal requirement, but “I believe it was intended, in good faith, to alert the DABS and the public that Woody’s would be closed.” The owners informed DABS staff of the closure shortly after they reopened, she said, and they made no effort to hide it.

Clason wrote that, in light of her focus on a “service-first mission” at the agency, she believed dropping the case “is in the best interest of the department and Utah residents whom we serve.”

In a separate letter, Commission Chair Julie Tennert notified Clason she agreed with the decision.

And that was that. Woody’s was spared.

“We would like to extend our biggest thank you to everyone for all of their support,” read a post on Woody’s Facebook page. “We are beyond happy to continue to serve you all and look forward to seeing you again.”

I was as surprised as anyone at the outcome. I had written that the Woody’s saga epitomized the ticky-tack “gotcha” enforcement that has been the hallmark of liquor policy in the state.

Here, however, we ended up with a sensible outcome, and Clason, Cox and the commission deserve credit for reaching that resolution.

Hopefully, it is just the beginning and we really are building a new culture in how the agency treats licensees and serves consumers.

But if you talk to anyone who runs a restaurant or a bar, or distributes liquor or even just buys wine or spirits now and then, we have a long way to go. That’s because the Legislature has written the laws to be all about control first — limiting licenses, emphasizing enforcement and making consumers jump through hoops — and serving the public an afterthought.

Don’t like it? Tough. It’s a state-run monopoly and, as with any monopoly, especially one that generates hundreds of millions of dollars, there isn’t much incentive for the Legislature to help improve it or to even make sure the rules they impose make sense.

It’s how Woody’s got tripped up in the first place over a technical violation of a law that, as near as I can tell, doesn’t really benefit the public in a meaningful way, but it has lingered on the books without question for at least three decades.

So, yes, I’m delighted that Woody’s was saved from the chopping block. It shouldn’t have been there in the first place. And I’m hopeful that Clason will succeed, to the extent she can, in moving the liquor agency toward a more customer-friendly, service-oriented focus.

But until the Legislature buys into that new mindset and shakes its compulsion to exercise iron-fisted domination over all things alcohol — without considering the logic or the impacts of their actions — future businesses will find themselves in the same spot as Woody’s.

And will they also have to count on common sense winning in the end?

Update, Nov. 28, 12 p.m. • This story has been updated with a comment from Gov. Spencer Cox.