SALT LAKE CITY — The so-called "Zion curtain" that shields diners from liquor displays and alcohol dispensing in Utah restaurants won't be coming down anytime soon.
An omnibus liquor bill emerged in the Senate on Tuesday combining parts of three measures that were hung up in the Legislature. Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, said the resulting legislation is a compromise between the House and Senate.
"This is not a hijack," he said.
But HB228 no longer includes removal of the partition that separates the dining and alcohol service areas in restaurants.
"I still think that's a policy mistake," said Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, the bill's sponsor. He said he acknowledges that removing what he calls the Zion wall is "dead in the Senate and whatever we do has to pass both bodies."
The House overwhelmingly passed the original measure, 63-11, before it stalled in the Senate. In a preliminary vote Tuesday, the Senate signaled it will approve the overhauled version and send it back to the House for consideration.
Valentine says a "wetter" environment where drinking is more socially acceptable or visible gives rise to more youth drinking on or off premises.
"I'm concerned about the culture of alcohol. I'm concerned about changing the atmosphere of our restaurants to bars," Valentine said. "Our restaurants are family friendly. We don't want the atmosphere that encourages the consumption of alcohol."
Wilcox said the "culture of alcohol" is a term that "nobody can define. It means something different depending on who you're talking to."
In a committee meeting on the initial bill, Wilcox said there's no evidence to show that the Zion wall reduces underage drinking.
Since 2009, the state has required restaurants to construct the barriers to shield young people from liquor displays and the mixing of alcoholic beverages.
Wilcox said the law isn't applied evenly because eateries that opened before then weren't required to build a wall, which makes it difficult for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to enforce.
He called the law "silly" and a "model of inconsistency" that has created an uneven playing field. It especially hurts small, locally owned restaurants that often have limited seating capacity, Wilcox said.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she was disappointed in changes to the bill. She had called the Zion curtain "weird" and suggested rather than keeping alcohol being poured from a child's view, parents could use seeing it as teaching moment.
But, she said, the issue is far from settled.
"I definitely think it will come back," Lockhart said. "It will return to the Legislature for sure."
While the Zion curtain provision was stripped from the bill, it now includes elements of Valentine's bills that weren't moving in the House.
HB228 now includes the stiffer fines Valentine proposed for restaurants caught serving alcohol to minors, though he reduced the amounts as part of the compromise. A first offense would run $1,500, a second $3,000 and a third $10,000. Restaurants may also have their liquor licenses suspended as part of the penalty.
Also part of the bill is Valentine's proposal for a "master" liquor license that a restaurant chain could obtain to cover all of its outlets rather than having to get permits for each one.
The measure would remove the uncertainty for big chains as to whether liquor licenses would be available under Utah's quota system, he said. It also would provide for more restaurants to serve alcohol.
To offset that, the bill calls for more enforcement of alcohol policy, including a new position in the attorney general's office to handle violations.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche