|By Robert Gehrke, The Salt Lake
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 2, 2009 --For the first time in four decades, bar patrons were able to walk in the door of most any Utah watering hole, pull up a stool and order a drink without passing the quiz: "Are you a member?"
Hundreds, if not thousands, of drinkers turned out to exploit their newfound freedom in a series of bar crawls in downtown Salt Lake City, including one featuring a half-dozen buses shuttling patrons from stop to stop.
"It just makes it seem less weird here in Utah," said Lance Dickey, a patron at Piper Down in Salt Lake City. The membership requirement was bizarre to people from outside the state, including Dickey's family from Oregon. "When they come here they always gave me s--- about the liquor laws here."
It had been 40 years since Utah adopted its private club law, requiring patrons to purchase a membership, which usually cost between $20 and $40 a year. It was designed, with the help of prominent members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the state's dominant religion, to limit alcohol consumption.
But Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., pressed by the state's hospitality industry, convinced the Legislature to repeal the membership law, arguing that it hampered the state's $7 billion per year tourism industry.
"I think this is the biggest change ever, and most of us aren't even going to notice it," Chris Young, who had a goal of visiting 16 bars along the bar crawl route, said at Liquid Joe's Wednesday night. "But those who are coming in from out of town can just walk in and order a drink and not be asked if they have a membership."
Bars were generally busy for a Wednesday, but not packed, and there was heavy traffic both in and out of the door as patrons moved from one bar to the next.
Pete Stevenson, who was drinking a Pabst at Gracies, the 10th bar his group had walked to that night, said being able to get in to establishments he never would have visited "adds so much of a social aspect that you're not going to get when everybody has to be a member."
Some patrons joked that a late-evening thunderstorm that hit Salt Lake was a sign from an angry God. On the shuttle buses, passengers could win T-shirts, sunglasses or condoms by answering trivia questions.
"It's epic: You can just walk in and out," said Jon Schrenk. "It's so much better than before."
A handful of bars have said they are going to hang onto their private club status so they can maintain control over who they let in the doors. Several others, gay bars or high-end, exclusive establishments, also plan to continue checking memberships. And pubs that have live music, like Liquid Joe's in Millcreek, will still charge a cover, but won't have a membership fee on top of it.
At South Shore Sports Bar and Grill in South Salt Lake, manager Lonnie Showmaker doesn't expect to see much of a change from the new law because the bar relies on a steady group of regulars.
The Salt Lake chapter of the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving opposed the change, fearing it would make liquor more accessible and lead to bar crawls -- the type taking place Wednesday night.
"It's a freedom that Utahns haven't enjoyed until today," said Tony Robiet, whose friends at Gracie's called July 1st "Independence Day."
"A couple months from now the novelty will have worn off," he said.
Spokesmen for the Utah Highway Patrol and Salt Lake County Sheriff's office said there wasn't any stepped-up DUI enforcement in effect because of the new laws, but there will be additional officers out for the Fourth of July weekend.
In exchange for the private club repeal, lawmakers toughened drunken driving laws and required bars to verify patrons' ages by scanning driver licenses when they appear to be under 35 years old and retaining the records for a week.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, who reluctantly went along with the change, said he will closely watch the effect of the new law for a spike in drunken driving or traffic accidents.
"Obviously my biggest concern is the safety of our citizens, our families, the drivers on the roads," he said, but there are new tools for law enforcement to crack down on DUI, which could leave the state "better off than we were before, so I'm willing to give it a try."
Scott Brennan says the new law will let visitors give Utah's bar scene a try as well.
"The common misperception is that Utah has no night life and it's boring," he said. "Now that this was done, those people from out of town can know this is a place to go and scope it out and have a good time."
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