Behind the Zion curtain
The drinks flow more freely, except in Utah
ALMOST 80 years after the repeal of Prohibition, the sale of wine and spirits remains partly or wholly in government hands in a third of America’s states. But in these tough times economic considerations are starting to outweigh moral concerns. On November 8th Washington’s voters approved plans to privatise the state’s 328 liquor outlets and open the business to warehouse stores and supermarkets. Budget planners think the change could bring in an extra $80m a year from licence fees. The victory for the Yes campaign—secured with $22.5m from Costco, a warehouse-store chain, the record for a donation to a Washington ballot initiative—reduces the number of controlled states to 17, following similar moves by West Virginia and Iowa years ago. Other states considering opening the spigots include North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Opponents will not give up without a fight. They wield studies that point to increases in consumption and car accidents after laws are loosened. But nowhere is liberalisation resisted more staunchly than in Mormon-dominated Utah, where even strong beer has to be sold through publicly owned stores. Its restrictive distribution system is under the spotlight thanks to an ongoing bid-rigging scandal at the state-run alcohol monopoly. But the forces arrayed against reform are strong, including the speaker of the state Senate and anti-drink-driving pressure groups. The odds of privatisation are “a small fraction of those of seeing a Mormon in the White House,” sighs one lawmaker.
Worse, Utah’s famously tough and complicated rules on the way drinks are stored and served in bars and restaurants have been growing more restrictive, not less so. The shackles had loosened a bit during the governorship of Jon Huntsman, whose administration worried that jokes about being “slower than Salt Lake City on a Saturday night” were a turn-off to party-minded skiers (Utah has some of the best slopes in North America). Bars no longer had to set themselves up as private clubs that charged would-be drinkers membership fees, for instance. After Mr Huntsman left to become Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, however, the reactionaries regained the initiative.
Under one new law, restaurants opened after January 2010, even those that serve nothing more potent than beer, have to erect a barrier along the length of the bar that shields under-age punters from the sight of drinks being stored or poured. These walls, often made of frosted glass, are known locally as “Zion curtains”. These establishments’ beer sales cannot exceed 30% of their total revenue. The same law bans all-day discounts on drinks, introduced by many bars in recent years to get around the ban on happy hours. Doubles have long been illegal. Licensed restaurants must use ID scanners on customers who look younger than 35.
Bars and restaurants are regularly tripped up by a strict quota system for new licences, which is based on Utah’s population growth. A number of places that had been awarded permits for all types of alcohol had them taken away in October because the increase in headcount was below projections. These can now serve only beer that is 3.2% or less alcohol. To cap it all, pubs and eateries have to pay the same 80-90% markup for their booze as consumers do in the state-run stores. With so many hoops to jump through and extra costs to absorb, it is no wonder that some chains are slowing their expansion in the state or choosing to focus elsewhere. As the souvenir shot glasses say: “Eat, drink and be merry—tomorrow you may be in Utah.”
privatise v. 私有化 loosen v. 松动 shackles n.束缚 illegal adj.违法的 headcount n.点名人数, 所有在场的人数