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#SaveUtahBars pushes for liquor law changes during COVID-19

Posted at 3:22 PM, Jul 14, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — It started with a tweet expressing frustration with the situation of trying to run a bar during COVID-19.

Since then, the tweet by Quarters Arcade Bar in downtown Salt Lake City has gained momentum as people push for liquor law changes to help bars and restaurants in Utah struggling to stay afloat. It's spawned an online petition, a social media hashtag #SaveUtahBars and a push on Capitol Hill to ease some of Utah's notoriously strict liquor laws.

"We need help right now," said Sean Neves, one of the owners of Water Witch Cocktail Bar in Salt Lake City's trendy Granary District.

Appearing on "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast" produced by FOX 13 and The Salt Lake Tribune, Katy Willis and Michael Eccleston, the owners of Quarters, said they are hoping "to-go" cocktail sales can help struggling bars. They insisted it can be done safely and other states have already adopted the practice as a way to help struggling businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It’s not a 'Dump it in a Solo cup, pat you on your butt and send you on your way,'" said Eccleston.

Willis said it would be similar to purchasing liquor in a state-run store.

"When I say sealed container, I mean a bottle with a cap. A sealed can like you would get a to-go beer or something with a screw top," she said.

Since their tweet, the initiative has gained steam. Online, bars, breweries and distilleries are rallying around the hashtag #SaveUtahBars, calling on their customers and followers to contact their legislators to ask for changes. Neves launched an online petition that has been racking up signators in the past few days.

"We know that we’re fighting an uphill battle. We’re hoping we can show that this can be done safely, first and foremost," he told FOX 13 on Tuesday. "We have gotten some limited feedback that people are listening, which is a great sign. We’ve gotten about 5,000 signatures in the last four days since we launched the petition. We hope to get that up to 10,000 or 20,000 people. We have a lot of support behind us."

Bars are not the only ones asking for "to-go" options. Michele Corigliano, the executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, said restaurateurs are also seeking some changes for similar sales.

"Right now, there’s a workaround," she said of Utah liquor laws. "People can go into the restaurant, show their ID, order food, open a bottle of wine, re-cork it and take it with them. All we’re asking is that we be able to sell beer and wine so it’s not uncorked. It’s absolutely corked and they can’t open it until they get home with their take out. We think it’s a reasonable concession to keep our industry alive."

Corigliano said SLARA has had conversations with lawmakers about the potential for some modifications in an upcoming special session of the legislature -- and there are positive signs.

"We have a majority of Republican legislators that understand that free market and the absence of undue restrictions by the government helps businesses. I think if we craft legislation that still maintains we don’t over-serve, or promote drinking and driving, or underage drinking -- as long as we follow those things -- I believe that with carefully structured legislation we can get it through," she said.

Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who are tasked by the legislature's Republican majority with running alcohol policy bills were both out of town and unavailable for comment, said spokespersons for their respective offices.

On his petition site, Neves has been asking for further liquor law modifications to help struggling bars. They include:

  • Legalizing "happy hour" in Utah (those types of drink specials are not allowed under current law)
  • Doing away with the current dispensing system for metered shots
  • Allowing liquor licensees to purchase wholesale from the DABC at a discount
  • Changing the population quota formula for bar licenses

He has urged people to email and contact their lawmakers to get changes made.

"We’re hoping to build that head of steam to get these issues home, especially with potentially an emergency session coming up from the legislature. Because these changes are needed now," Neves said.