At times, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee became heated as Representative Kraig Powell (Republican – Heber) presented HB 285, a bill that would tear down the so called “Zion Curtain” between restaurant patrons and those preparing alcoholic beverages.
Powell began his presentation with statistics that fly in the face of Utah’s squeaky clean image when it comes to the state’s alcohol policy.
“In Utah, we are proud of our ability to minimize the instances of alcohol abuse… however, when we interpret these statistics, I think sometimes we don’t compare the number of alcohol users as a percentage of the population compared to the rest of the nation. We are actually 23rd in the nation for drunk driving rates [per alcohol drinkers]. Binge drinking, among people who use alcohol, we actually flop to the [high end of the ranks]. We are the highest in the nation for binge drinking among those who use alcohol [proportionately],” Hall told the committee. “Underage drinking,” Powell continued “we see the same phenomenon going on. We have the lowest number of youth in the nation who drink alcohol… when you look at the percent of alcohol users in the state, those who actually drink and are under-age [make up a larger proportion of the drinking population].”
Powell then turned his attention to the perceived ineffectiveness of the Zion Curtain. “Nine percent of all alcohol consumed in Utah is consumed in restaurants, so the regulations we are talking about today are focused on a very minuscule aspect of the problem.” Powell added that the Zion Curtain has created a competitive disadvantage for those companies that happened to be in place prior to the implementation of the Zion Curtain law in 2009.
[pullquote]Have you ever been in a real bar? It’s not a restaurant! It is actually quite clear. – Representative Kraig Powell (Republican – Heber)[/pullquote]Joel LaSalle, President of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association noted that theft and cheating is a very real concern because of the Zion Curtain, noting that because Utah requires the metering of alcohol, it is impossible to ensure that a patron is actually receiving the 1.5 ounces of spirits required by law to be poured. Melva Sine, President of the Utah Restaurant Association, noted that people go to a restaurant for a dining experience and that “alcohol is a secondary consideration.” She went on to note that only 900 of the 43,000 restaurants across the state actually serve alcohol, suggesting that there are several options for those who do not wish to witness the pouring of a drink. She concluded by noting that alcohol is openly displayed at grocery stores in the form of beer already.
Representative Jake Anderegg (Republican – Lehi) took an unexpected turn midway through the committee’s comment time. “You know, when you look at the Zion Curtain through an adult’s eyes, it is the dumbest thing in the world. I have a hard time justifying it. But I have a serious problem with our alcohol code.” Lamenting Utah’s tiered system of bars versus clubs versus restaurants. “I want it to be black or white. I want everything on this side of the line to be a bar-like setting, and we are going to treat them like this. And everything on this side of the line is going to be more like a restaurant, and we are going to treat them like this.” Anderegg then noted a recent article from Restaurant News that praised the “Late Night initiative” Applebee’s has started where the restaurant chain remains open until midnight to serve patrons, among other things, alcohol. He continued to note that the state’s policy should be to protect children and that such an initiative makes it difficult for him to justify a policy that removes the Zion Curtain.
Powell, somewhat agitated, responded to Anderegg. “Have you ever been in a real bar? It’s not a restaurant! It is actually quite clear… The most important distinction in our state between restaurants and bars: 70 percent/30 percent [rule dealing with food sales versus alcohol sales].” Powell continued to counter Anderegg by noting that state law would prevent the chain’s overall plan from being implemented in the state. “I would be willing to live with [the Zion Curtain] if I could see logically how it actually served the goals of stopping binge drinking,” Powell inserted.
Before the final vote, Powell quoted the biblical book of Corinthians, noting that we view the world only though our own eyes. He asked the committee, which he acknowledged was filled with non-drinkers, to consider those who do consume alcohol when creating alcohol policy. “This bill is not to increase the sale of alcohol, it is to make someone else’s life more comfortable with the circumstances they are accustomed to… our current policy is unkind, ineffective, and costly to our society.”
The vote was close, coming down to a vote of 8-7. The bill will advance to the full House where similar resistance can be expected.