In October, the Eccles Theater, a sleek, $119 million arts center and concert hall, opened in downtown Salt Lake City. Staircases and a balcony curled around its open lobby, allowing visitors to peer at the heads of restaurant patrons below. But no attention could be paid to the bartenders while they poured alcohol. Utah’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Department demanded that the theater build what the Salt Lake Tribune called “one of the most unique dining features in the country”: a tiny, opaque cubicle topped with an indoor roof. Bartenders must retreat to the booth, like wizards behind a curtain, whenever they mix a drink.
These barriers, nicknamed Zion curtains — the roof within the Eccles has the dubious honor of being the world’s only Zion ceiling — are a common sight in Utah’s alcohol-serving establishments. The walls, normally 7-feet 2-inches high and translucent, may be a source of confusion among out-of-state tourists. And though the shields deflect wayward and underage eyes from observing booze, evidence is scarce that the curtains in fact curb alcohol consumption.
To Brad Wilson (R-Kaysville), Utah’s House majority leader, it was time for the curtains’ final call.
On Tuesday, Wilson proposed a bill that would remove the requirement for restaurants to obscure liquor bottles and the act of tending bar. Restaurants would instead establish “an area adjacent to the bar where minors won’t be able to sit. Adults will still be able to go there and get dinner at a restaurant and order a drink,” said Wilson in an interview with KSL-TV.
“This bill is about modernizing our alcohol policies so we can reflect opportunities to reduce drunk driving and underage drinking,” he said.“And if at the same time, if we can be helpful to the hospitality industry, we want to do that.”
Several states have stringent, and unpopular, laws regulating alcohol. Happy hours are illegal in Massachusetts, to the consternation of some Bostonians. But Utah’s critics say that some of its laws are more draconian than most; beer sold in Utah taverns, for example, may not have alcohol content stronger than 3.2 percent. As for Utahns, a 62 percent majority oppose the barriers, according to a 2014 poll. They are unpopular with restaurant owners, who consider them awkward and an eyesore.
There is also a lack of research into whether the curtains had any effect on teenage drinking. “Exposure to alcohol does have an effect on teen drinking, but I worry that the multimedia, including alcohol advertising, would overwhelm any effects that the Utah law might have,” Jim Fell, an expert in alcohol research with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, told the Salt Lake Tribune in 2011.
The barriers first came into existence in the 1960s, when they were erected in the state’s membership-only drinking clubs. Public bars in Utah were not established until 2009. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has supported the barriers, which coincide with a religious requirement for abstinence from alcohol. In Mormon belief, God revealed a health code to prophet Joseph Smith on Feb. 27, 1833. The dietary laws, which became known as the Word of Wisdom, prohibit the consumption of tea and coffee, and state that “strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.”
(The reference to the barriers as Zion curtains, which the Mormon Church has called “loaded,” is meant to reflect the political clout that the Mormon Church holds in Utah.)
In a 2014 video produced by the Church, it described the law requiring barriers as one of the Utah’s “crucial statutes,” which protects children from glamorizing booze and also keeps deaths from alcohol consumption low. (In 2012, the U.S. national average of deaths involving a drunk driver was 3.3 per 100,000 population. The rate for Utah was just 1.2, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.) To those who would like to see the curtains torn down, the voiceover wondered: “How important is it to see your drink being made? Does it really matter as long as you get your order?”
Tuesday was not the first time that state legislators took aim at the walls. In May 2009, legislation signed by then-Gov. Jon Huntsman allowed restaurants to remove the barriers.
“It was quite frustrating. It inhibited service time. It was always a conversation piece, especially for tourists, which you get a lot of,” one restaurant manager told NPR’s “All Things Considered” in 2009 after the curtains fell.
But within a year, the state reinstated the barrier requirement. Any restaurant that opened after January 2010 must prevent patrons from seeing liquor bottles.
Since then, opponents have continued to push back. A bill that would have done away with the barriers, introduced by Sen. Jim Dabakis (D-Salt Lake City), failed to gain traction in 2016. “It simply doesn’t work. It’s awkward. It’s annoying. It’s miserable. It creates a weirdness level that we don’t deserve. It ought to be torn down and it ought to be torn down immediately!” Dabakis said in a February committee meeting, according to Salt Lake’s Fox 13.
It seems the curtains’ critics will have another shot with Wilson’s proposal. The recently unveiled bill did not completely upset Utah law, however. It would keep a requirement that restaurant sales reflect, at minimum, 70 percent food. Patrons who would like to drink alcohol must intend to order food as well, reported Fox 13 on Tuesday. And the state, which owns and operates Utah’s liquor stores, would also increase alcohol costs one or two points above the current 86 percent markup.
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