Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Bill Advances to Batter Down Zion Walls in Restaurants

Posted By on March 5, 2014, 12:35 PM

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For multiple lawmakers on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee it was clear that the Zion Walls used to shield restaurant-goers from viewing the pouring of alcohol was an important fortification from turning their family-friendly diners into seedy bars. For Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City whose bill would allow for the walls to come down, he was forced to ask critical lawmakers if they knew what they were talking about. “Have you ever actually been into a real bar?” Powell asked. “It's not a restaurant, its quite clear.”---

For Powell the key point for Utah liquor law was to recognize that removing Zion walls from restaurants wouldn't turn them into bars because restaurants still have different hours from clubs, still require patrons to signal an intent to dine to be able to order a drink, and they would still have to ensure 70 percent of their sales were food compared to 30 percent alcohol sales.

Powell introduced his bill with the statistic showing that only 9 percent of alcohol consumed in Utah was done in restaurants.

“The regulations we are talking about today are focused on a very minuscule aspect of the problem,” Powell said. “But with some of the changes we make today we can... prevent the sorts of harms we want to prevent while at the same time allowing citizens and business owners to do what we want them to do, which is succeed economically.”

Powell, realized of course that some of his arguments had been made before in previously unsuccessful attempts to tear down the walls in Utah restaurants, that's why his bill also added new changes to help further distinguish bars from restaurants and give consumers better information about their dining choices.

Powell's House Bill 285 would allow restaurants to remove their Zion Walls or not put them up if they chose instead to post a prominent notice in their establishment warning customers that “this establishment prepares and dispenses alcoholic products in public view.”

A restaurant could choose to avoid the signage and keep their Zion Walls if they wanted, but restaurants would also have to abide y new regulations creating a larger buffer between their bar area and their dining area. Powell pointed out that currently minors going to a restaurant could not sit at a bar but they could sit at a table only a few feet away from a bar. New language in his bill would designate dining areas adjacent to the bar as a “lounge” and prohibit minors from that area. The option for Utahns to be notified of whether or not a restaurant pours alcohol appealed to Melva Sine president of the Utah Restaurant Association.

“We have 4,300 restaurants [in Utah] 900 of them sell some kind of alcohol,” Sine said. “That means there are 3,300 restaurants for people to go to to not be bothered with alcohol.”

Still others on the committee worried about the line separating a bar and a restaurant and the harm in having a wall dividing it. The comment that drew the exasperated question from Powell was made by Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi whose outrage reached a booming level when he shared the experience of reading in a trade magazine about how the Appleby's restaurant chain across the country was trying to create a bar-like atmosphere.

“Where's the line?” Anderegg asked. “I get the economic impact, but either we are in the business of protecting minors or we are not. From that standpoint, pushing the limits is not acceptable to me when we're talking about how we're treating minors.”

It was a point echoed by other wall defenders like Stan Rasmussen of the conservative think tank The Sutherland Institute, who argued that restaurants had claimed the wall was hurting impeding sales by removing the “allure” of cocktails by shielding their preparation, and that Utah law was meant to discourage alcohol consumption not promote it.

Laura Bunker of United Families International admitted that there wasn't specific research showing the walls prevented underage drinking but pointed out they do affect drinking environments and send the right message specifically to minors.

“A sign speaks to adults, a partition speaks to children,” Bunker said. “It shields them from the glamor of bar tending and sends the message that alcohol deserve more care or more concern than soft drinks or juice.”

Powell's Zion Wall battering ram of a bill was pelted with plenty of criticism but it also had supporters helping with the push and not just ones from the dining industry.

Connor Boyack of the libertarian-leaning think tank The Libertas Institute argued that all stakeholders want to prevent underage drinking but lawmakers need to be realistic about whether the expensive burden the walls place on business owners is worth it when its unclear if they do anything to prevent alcohol use by minors.

“A $10,000 wall can make or break the bank for some businesses,” Boyack testified.

Ultimately Powell's bill passed out favorably but by the narrowest of margins--an 8 to 7 vote. It will now head to the House floor for further debate.

To read HB 285 click here. To contact Rep. Powell about this bill click here. To find your legislator to contact them about this bill click here. For more updates from the hill visit CityWeekly.net and follow @EricSPeterson and @ColbyFrazierLP on Twitter.

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