Utah lawmakers decide to keep 'Zion curtains' that require restaurants to hide drink making

SALT LAKE CITY – A measure that would have scaled back one of Utah’s offbeat liquor laws died in the state Legislature on Tuesday.

Lawmakers killed a proposal that would remove barriers in Utah restaurants that shield patrons from seeing servers mix and pour drinks. The Senate replaced the repeal with other minor liquor regulations in a preliminary vote of 24-2.

Republican Sen. John Valentine, of Orem, said the move to keep the barricades stemmed from lawmakers’ fear that taking them down would foster a bigger culture of drinking in Utah.

“We have restaurants. And we have bars,” Valentine said, emphasizing a clear distinction between the two. “And we do not want to foster the culture of alcohol in those restaurants.”

The barriers, known as “Zion curtains,” went up around the state in 2010. They materialized as part of a compromise after lawmakers lifted a requirement for bars to operate as members-only social clubs.

The curtains go back decades in the state’s history, and the nickname nods to Utah’s legacy as home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The majority of Utah legislators and residents belong to the Mormon church, which teaches its members to abstain from alcohol.

A former incarnate of the barriers went up in the late 1960s in social clubs serving alcohol, and stood until the state legalized bars in 2009. Those former barriers took the form of glass walls separating customers from bartenders.

Opponents of today’s Zion curtains say the law forces restaurant owners to waste money and space on configurations to keep bartenders out of sight. Some construct wall-like barriers, and others put up strategically positioned service bars. Curtain opponents also say the law hinders tourism by annoying outsiders and reinforcing their perception of Utah as staunchly sober.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, a Republican from Ogden, is one of those critics. He sponsored the bill to take down the barricades, saying the barrier rule treats new restaurant owners unfairly. The patchwork nature of Utah’s liquor laws, Wilcox contends, makes them difficult for the state to enforce.

Lawmakers replaced the measure to take down the barriers with a measure that includes a smaller step to ease up on liquor restrictions. The new bill would free up some of the state’s limited liquor licenses, which it restricts based on a population quotas, by creating a master liquor license for chain restaurants. It would allow them to hold one permit for multiple restaurants, rather than gobble up a license for each site.

The Senate is set to cast a final vote on the bill before it adjourns Thursday. After that, the governor would have to approve for it to become law.