The Utah Legislature is weighing changes to Utah’s separate dispensing area law that requires restaurants to wall off the preparation and mixing of
The Utah Legislature is weighing changes to Utah's separate dispensing area law that requires restaurants to wall off the preparation and mixing of alcoholic drinks from their customers. (Stock photo)

"Will you be dining with us tonight?"

The legally-mandated query for restaurants to verbally confirm their diners will be dining will not be done away with this year.

Park City's state representative, Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, introduced a bill for the current legislative session that would amend Utah's unique liquor laws - in particular, the "intent to dine" and "Zion Curtain" provisions.

Last week, Powell dropped the "intent to dine" reform from his bill, "so that the focus can be on the most onerous aspect of restaurant liquor regulation, the separate dispensing wall," he stated at the time.

"It's always difficult to decide what to spend your energy on and what to sacrifice," Powell told The Park Record on Monday. "And as I've talked to many restaurant owners and operators, they have said that the separate dispensing wall is the most important issue to them. And in fact, the intent to dine issue has become less pressing, primarily because of the way it's being enforced. Restaurants say that they are able to deal with it, that it's not as much of a concern, not as imposing on customers because the enforcement has not been as strict and rigorous as far as sting operations and 'gotchas.'"

Powell indicated that, in addition to the input of those restaurateurs, he dropped the intent to dine requirement for pragmatic reasons - he thinks it will give him the best chance to reform Utah's liquor laws in any meaningful way.

"We already know that the Utah House voted to remove the wall last year, so I think that I can count on most of those votes, but if I put a different issue in, I would not be able to predict whether they would support that combination," he said.

The separate dispensing area law, also known as the "Zion Curtain," requires restaurants to literally build walls so that diners cannot view the mixing or preparation of alcoholic drinks.

Powell's current bill is different from previously proposed reforms, in that it would allow a restaurant to opt out of the wall requirement if it posts a notice on its entrances and menus that reads: "Notice: This establishment dispenses and serves alcoholic products in public view."

"I think that we need to change the debate a little bit from just the stark yes or no, do we leave the wall or remove the wall," Powell said.

He seems optimistic about the bill's chances in the House of Representatives, but less so about its prospects with the Senate.

"I've had several House members tell me that that is an interesting approach that they could support," he said. "I will be honest with you, I have not had any senators tell me that they support either version of the bill and I think that is because the senators have a mindset that it would be easier not to discuss the restaurant alcohol restrictions at all this year, and they don't want to show any cracks in the fortress."

"I can see a path forward here, but it involves a few forks in the road and some open minds and willingness to discuss on several people's parts," he said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released in January an article and video interview with Elder D. Todd Christofferson titled "Church Says Existing Alcohol Laws Benefit Utah," in which it reiterated its stance in support of the existing liquor laws, including the intent to dine and separate dispensing area requirements.

Like most of the Utah Legislature, Powell is a member of the LDS Church, but when it comes to the liquor laws, he is not swayed by its arguments.

"I view this as a matter of public policy that I am elected to decide, and I view the other important voices in this debate as members of various interest groups who have various positions on public policy," he said. "So I don't think it's a religious matter. I think it's a matter of public policy and I simply try to use the data that I have to make the best policy I can, with input from my constituents, so I can represent their views the best I can. 

"Therefore, it does not bother me to be able to have discussions and even disagreements with the LDS Church and other interest groups on this matter."

Powell's liquor law reform bill, H.B. 285, was scheduled for a hearing before the House Revenue and Taxation Committee late Tuesday, after this edition went to press.