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From .05 To Brewvies Lawsuit, 2017 Brought Many Changes To Utah’s Liquor Laws

Nicole Nixon / KUER

Any proposed change to Utah’s liquor laws is met with scrutiny by the restaurant industry, conservatives, and drinkers alike.

A Lower Limit

2017 brought many changes to Utah’s liquor laws, including one that caught everyone’s attention. The state lowered the legal DUI limit from .08 percent blood alcohol content to .05 percent. That law does not take effect until the end of 2018, but it made Utah the first state in the country to adopt a limit below .08.

“Actually, Utah was, I believe, the first state to lower it to .08 back in the ‘80s as well,” said Tanner Strickland Lenart, an attorney specializing in liquor laws. Her clients are mostly bars and restaurants, and she helps them navigate Utah’s complicated alcohol regulations.

“Everything from getting their licenses, whether that’s a bar or an educational permit,” she said. “Sometimes there are violation issues. Navigating that with the Attorney General’s office.”

The switch to .05 “is maybe a trend we’re going to see,” Lenart said, citing pushes to move to .05 in other states like Washington, Hawaii and Alabama. “We may be at the forefront of a movement.”

Over the summer the Utah Highway Patrol said they already saw a significant dip in DUI fatalities, possibly because some Utahns already think the .05 law has gone into effect.

"I have heard of people (saying), ‘I’m going to have a glass of wine and my partner is going to have a glass of wine,’” Lenart said, “as opposed to, ‘Let’s buy a bottle and split it.’”

The bill likely won’t be repealed in the 2018 Legislative session, Lenart said, but many of her clients want a tiered penalty system.

Credit Nicole Nixon / KUER
The bar at Current Fish & Oyster before and after its "Zion Curtain" was removed.

“I hear of people hoping that the ramifications or the way that it’s implemented might get changed” before it goes into effect, she said. “Perhaps having .05-.079 be the misdemeanor, or the lesser penalty,” while having a stricter punishment for driving at a .08 percent BAC.

Tear Down This Wall

Another bill that passed the Legislature this year almost completely overhauled the state’s liquor laws. It was most known for allowing restaurants to bring down barriers covering the bar — known as the “Zion Curtain.”

Some restaurants celebrated. Joel LaSalle, who owns Current Fish and Oyster downtown, threw a party to celebrate the removal of his Zion Curtain, complete with a champagne toast behind the newly-visible bar.

But there’s give and take when it comes to changing Utah’s liquor laws. Restaurants that removed their Zion Curtains, like Current, had to have some sort of replacement — either a short wall five feet from the bar or a 10-foot “buffer zone” around the bar where children aren’t allowed to sit.

Current went with the buffer zone, which means it can’t seat groups with kids at the three tables near its bar.

Lenart says those options are working at some restaurants, but not at others.

“Certain restaurants that are long and narrow, say, and have a bar right down the side of them. That’s an issue” for some restaurant owners, Lenart said.

Credit Nicole Nixon / KUER

'This Premises Is Licensed As...'

That bill did a lot more than just give restaurants options besides the Zion Curtain. It imposed those infamous signs, designating whether an establishment is licensed as a bar or a restaurant.

“I saw the legislation before it went into effect and it was not something that caught my eye,” said Lenart, noting that it’s something many of her clients are still unhappy about.

“It’d be great if the legislature allowed the DABC a little more leeway” in approving signs that are different sizes or have different designs.

Boozier Brunches

The overhaul included one small but important victory for restaurants. They can now start serving alcohol an hour earlier on the weekends, which means Utahns can get a Bloody Mary with their brunch at 10:30.

“I prefer a mimosa but yes,” Lenart laughed. “Weekends and holidays. It’s a good rule of thumb to go along with if the state liquor stores are closed, like they were closed for Veterans Day, you get to serve alcohol at 10:30 instead of 11:30. You also get to serve beer an hour later.”

Brewvies Wins

Another big moment came in September, when a federal judge ruled part of Utah’s liquor statute violated a brewpub’s First Amendment rights. Brewvies had been cited several times for serving alcohol while showing films that had brief nudity in them.

Credit Nicole Nixon / KUER

Lenart says the law in question is common in many states—just for a different type of venue: Strip clubs. And U.S. District Judge David Nuffer said it shouldn’t apply to Brewvies.

“He repeatedly said that this is not a topless bar, this is not a theater devoted to pornography. This is a mainstream movie theater,” Lenart said.

“As long as (Brewvies) remains a mainstream movie theater, that’s what Judge Nuffer’s opinion says this is not what this law is supposed to be.”

Lenart notes that the Legislature may have to tweak that law to reflect Judge Nuffer’s ruling.

Lawmakers have more bills dealing with liquor laws in the works for 2018.

“I’m interested to see what happens,” Lenart said. “It definitely keeps me busy, all the changing laws.”

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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