Frustrated restaurant owners came to a legislative committee to tell lawmakers to tear down the "Zion Wall," referring to the structures required of restaurants to shield underage patrons from the sight of wine being poured and cocktails being mixed. Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said that, after significant study, there was no evidence of any kind to be found showing the walls were helping to prevent underage drinking.
His House Bill 228, presented Wednesday in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, primarily sought to help alcohol-serving restaurants tear the structures out of their businesses by tearing the out requirements for them in Utah code.
The barriers for a time seemed to have been taken out of the code in 2009, but reappeared again after the 2010 session. Wilcox, after studying the issue since the 2012 session, believes that the structures have three strikes against them, starting with the fact that since 2009, some restaurants have been grandfathered under the law so that they don’t need the partitions, creating inconsistencies among the state’s restaurants.
“An uneven playing field that’s the first strike, we haven’t been able to show it encourages underage drinking and the third one is that we get fun headlines [about the Zion wall] in The New York Times, USA Today and even The Economist,” Wilcox testified.
As a non-drinker, convinced that underage drinking is a public-health concern, Wilcox also said that if there were evidence that underage patrons were led to drinking by watching drinks poured and prepared in a restaurant, he would support the Zion walls staying up. “But there is none,” he told the committee.
Wilcox was backed by restaurant owners, like Alex Montanez, owner of Rovali’s Ristorante Italiano on Ogden’s Historic 25th Street.
Montanez moved the restaurant from Layton, and having transferred his liquor license to the new location, had to build a wall that cut into its floor space.
“When we erected the wall, an inspector came out said it wasn’t good enough, so we had to put up a fake olive tree to make it even more high so that the leaves covered the tap area,” Montanez testified. Wilcox cited small family-run businesses like Montanez’ as illustrative of how regulations were hurting small business, a point echoed by Blake Ballard, the owner of the Spark restaurant in Provo. Despite an entirely non-drinking staff, Ballard is frustrated with the laws he says hurt business with out-of-town visitors.
“When you walk into a secret room and pour a secret drink, they wonder, ‘What did you do to my drink?' ” Ballard testified.
He also said his restaurant is forced to mix drinks in a room that already doubles as a closet and his office, saying the staff calls it the “cloffice.” Ballard argued that underage drinking is not something that happens at restaurants but instead happens with teens trying to buy beer at grocery stores and gas stations, not at sit-down restaurants.
Wilcox presented the bill, which he said originally was expected to be part of alcohol legislation released in the Senate. It did not appear there, so he introduced it with HB 228, a sign indicating the reform may face resistance in the Senate. Undoubtedly, the bill will also face resistance from many in the Legislature as a whole, who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and believe that the church will oppose more liberal alcohol reforms.
The bill at least cleared the committee Wednesday, where it passed out favorably by a 9-3 vote.
To read HB 228, clicker here. To contact Rep. Wilcox about his bil,l click here. To find your legislator to contact them about this bill, click here. For more updates from the Hill, follow @EricSPeterson on Twitter.