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The Zion Curtains of Utah

A source of confusion among many first time visitors to the US state of Utah are the bars. Like any regular bar, there are stools lining the shiny counter, but instead of facing the bottles and the bartenders, they look straight at a wall of clouded white glass that rises from the middle of the counter, obscuring both on the other side. These barriers are nicknamed Zion curtains, a dig at the Church of Mormons that hold a large influence over the population of Utah.

In Utah, you cannot watch a bartender shake and mix your drink, because the state’s law requires —in accordance with Mormon’s religious views on drinking— that bartenders perform the act behind a curtain, lest the more impressionable and underage audience should see it and be tempted to indulge in liquor. To spare their virgin eyes, state lawmakers dictated that all alcohol-serving establishments within the state, especially those that opened after 2010, erect a 7-feet 2-inches high partition separating the bartenders from the patrons.

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A frosted glass curtain hides a portion of the bar at Brio Tuscan Grille at Fashion Place Mall. Photo credit: sltrib.com

Utah has some of the most draconian laws regulating the sale of alcohol. For instance, grocery stores, pubs, beer bars and restaurants cannot sell beer having alcohol content stronger than 3.2 percent by weight. Anything stronger is labeled “heavy” and can only be bought at a state liquor store, but those close at 1 AM, a full hour or two early than most of the rest of the country. They also stay closed on Sundays and holidays.

The state also dictates how much liquor bartenders can pour in drinks, serving no more than a total of 2.5 ounces of alcohol to one person, making mixed drinks with multiple liquors and cocktails with high concentrations of alcohol difficult to make. Given that the state tries so hard to prevent people from drinking too much, it’s strange that there is also a minimum bottle size. Aside from hotels and airlines, liquor shops can’t sell bottles smaller than 200 milliliters. And then, there is this Zion curtain.

The curtains date back to the 1960s, when they were first erected in the state’s membership-only drinking clubs. Until 2009, there were no public bars in Utah. Those who wished to drink had to fill out an application, pay a fee and become a member of a private club.

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The Zion curtain at Vuda Bar, in Utah's Salt Lake Valley. Photo credit: Djamila Grossman for The New York Times

In 2009, the then-governor Jon Huntsman got rid of the barriers, but they came back within a year. The law was relaxed —only those establishments that opened after January 2010 were required to have the curtains. In 2016, Salt Lake City Senator Jim Dabakis tried and failed to introduce a bill that would have done away with the barriers.

Now Brad Wilson, Utah’s House majority leader, has launched another attack on the curtains. Early this week, Wilson proposed a bill that would remove the requirement for restaurants to hide liquor bottles and the act of bartending from customers. Instead, restaurants would be required to establish a separate area adjacent to the bar where adults can go and drink but minors won’t be able to sit.

Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, welcomed the proposal saying, "It's time for adults to order an adult beverage without any stigma attached."

But Utah Governor Gary Herbert said, not so fast.

“I know that many in the media have focused narrowly on the issue of dispensing restrictions — but that would be merely one aspect of this updating,” said Herbert. “This is about public health and public safety. We will ensure that our regulations — coupled with additional state resources — focus on education, prevention, and enforcement practices that are proven to further reduce underage drinking, alcohol abuse and impaired driving.”

Supporters of the barriers insist that there is no evidence that the curtain are not working.

Senator Stuart Adams said that he doesn’t want children to be subjected to seeing alcohol portrayed as something fun, or adult, or exciting.

“He doesn’t want,” writes Utahpolicy.com, “for example, adults at the next table to his family’s engaged in something that could be a “teachable” moment – flaming drinks or other actions that could appeal to children or glamorize drinking.”

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Photo credit: thezioncurtain.wordpress.com

Sources: Washington Post / Wikipedia / Philadelphia Free Press / NBC News via TYWKIWDBI

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