The bill may deal with alcohol laws and how to keep children away from bars, but in reality, to many, it deals with Utah’s image.
It’s always about Utah’s image if the subject can be connected in any way to the state’s predominant religion and its teachings against alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco.
This tedious exercise is, to quote Shakespeare out of context, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
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Utah’s image is what it is, and it’s not about to change.
That’s how stereotypes work. People associate certain things with certain places, based on a variety of cues that include books, TV, movies and word of mouth. The image doesn’t tell the whole story. In some cases, it can be inaccurate, even if it is based in truth. And when it comes to Utah, it can be as hard to shove aside as the mountains.
Obsessing over image can be harmful if it keeps people from having serious discussions about how to reinforce sensible — and certainly not unique — laws that set age limits for alcohol consumption.
Two bills are working their way through the Legislature. The biggest one, more than 150 pages long, would allow restaurants to tear down the barriers current law requires between customers and the place where drinks are prepared. All they would need to do is impose a 10-foot zone between that place and where children may be seated. The current barriers are popularly called “Zion curtains,” just in case you needed proof that image-obsession hijacks serious alcohol issues here.
The other bill would lower the minimum legal blood alcohol limit to .05 which, unless Washington state or Hawaii acts first (both are entertaining similar bills), would give Utah the nation’s lowest limit.
The first bill deals with what supporters call the culture of drinking. Children take cues from adults and their surroundings as to what is acceptable and what is restricted. It would be as ridiculous to deny this as it would be to discount research about marketing, product placement and advertising.
Whether a barrier accomplishes this is a matter for legitimate debate, as is the question of how small restaurants would deal with a 10-foot buffer zone and proposed changes in licensing.
All of this came up in a committee meeting Wednesday. But then one restaurant owner came to the microphone and said, out of respect for Zion National Park, where he was married, he won’t refer to the barrier as a “Zion curtain.” He calls it a “Mormon wall.” He added that he meant no disrespect, of course.
And so it goes.
An Associated Press story about the bill began, “In heavily Mormon Utah…” and then identified the state has having “some of the nation’s strictest alcohol laws,” without attributing the statement.
In fact, other states, including neighboring Wyoming, have childfree buffer zones similar to what is being proposed. Massachusetts outlaws happy hours and drink specials. Pennsylvania, like Utah, allows liquor sales only through state-run stores. Kansas still has 13 dry counties, where alcohol is almost as restricted as it was during prohibition.
Utah state Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said, “There are 50 alcohol laws across the country. They’re not all the same. They’re all different, and they all have various quirks tied to them, if you will.”
But they don’t generate the headlines Utah does when it tinkers with its laws.
Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, was in town Wednesday to testify in favor of the .05 limit. I asked her if her cause would suffer by Utah leading the way, given its image. She seemed confused by the question, noting that she comes here a lot of vacation and has never had trouble getting a drink.
Utah may never get past its internal tug-of-war over image, even if it’s a mostly settled matter to the rest of the world. That’s true even though a reputation as a safe, clean-living place is not a bad thing, and even though visitors often are pleasantly surprised to find Utah isn’t so restrictive, after all.
But when that tug-of-war clouds public policy debates, no one wins.