Behind the Zion Curtain

Perhaps the most famous, and famously strange, state liquor law is Utah’s Zion Curtain rule. Initially a term for the cultural and religious barrier between Mormons and the rest of the US, the phrase became a nickname for the requirement that restaurants mix drinks only from behind a visual barrier—generally a frosted glass partition secured to the bar top. For a taste of the mind-bogglingly specific legal world that is Utah hooch, here’s the actual Zion Curtain provision, from the Utah Code, Title 32B, §6-205(12):

“Except as provided in Subsection 32B-5-307(3), a full-service restaurant licensee may dispense an alcoholic product only if:

(a) the alcoholic product is dispensed from:

(i) a grandfathered bar structure;
(ii) an area adjacent to a grandfathered bar structure that is visible to a patron sitting at the grandfathered bar structure if that area is used to dispense an alcoholic product as of May 12, 2009; or
(iii) an area that is:

(A) separated from an area for the consumption of food by a patron by a solid, translucent, permanent structural barrier such that the facilities for the storage or dispensing of an alcoholic product are:

(I) not readily visible to a patron; and
(II) not accessible by a patron; and

(B) apart from an area used:

(I) for dining;
(II) for staging; or
(III) as a lobby or waiting area;

(b) the full-service restaurant licensee uses an alcoholic product that is:

(i) stored in an area described in Subsection (12)(a);  or
(ii) in an area not described in Subsection (12)(a) on the licensed premises and:

(A) immediately before the alcoholic product is dispensed it is in an unopened container;
(B) the unopened container is taken to an area described in Subsection (12)(a) before it is opened;  and
(C) once opened, the container is stored in an area described in Subsection (12)(a);  and

(c) any instrument or equipment used to dispense alcoholic product is located in an area described in Subsection (12)(a).”

The law, which actually changed last year (more on that in a minute), was passed in 2009 as part of a compromise that actually liberalized alcohol service in bars while placing new requirements on service in restaurants. Before the 2009 legislation, bars were members-only: if you were a visitor to the Beehive state, and you walked in looking for a drink, you’d first have to fork over a membership fee. The change was designed to loosen up tourism dollars without offending too many sensibilities. Opponents derided the rule’s impact on everything from aesthetics to safety (How do I know they’re not slipping something in my drink back there?), while proponents insisted that the law protected children by creating a visual distinction between alcohol and other beverages. In my experience, making something secret and verboten is a really good way to make kids fascinated with it, but hey, that’s just me.

Zion Curtain 3
Quite the view from this bar stool

Above and beyond the aesthetics, the safety issue, and the questionable benefits, two fatal flaws ultimately doomed the Zion Curtain. The first was its inherent unfairness. The “grandfathered bar structures” mentioned in the citation above means that any restaurant that was open when the law passed did not have to follow it. People opening new restaurants obviously made some noise about that.

The second was simply that the law was too… weird. Imbedded in the newspaper articles and the quotes from politicians is this deep concern with the public perception of Utah as strange and different, in an unwelcoming way. Cognizant of the economic power of tourism in the 21st century, this physical symbol of peculiar old-fashionedness, catchy nickname and all, was just too much. In mid-2017 House Bill 442 made it optional, allowing restaurants to choose between the curtain and a simple 10-foot separation between the drink prep area and the dining room—something several other states also do. Opponents immediately dubbed the new option the “Zion Moat” but, you know, that just doesn’t roll off the tongue in the same way.

 

Image source: http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=57670596&itype=CMSID

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