Image: Becca Jones
Jim Urquhart  /  AP
Bartender Becca Jones prepares drinks at the Oyster Bar in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
updated 7/1/2009 1:31:27 PM ET 2009-07-01T17:31:27

Bartenders in Utah threw open their doors Wednesday as the state ditched a 40-year-old requirement that customers fill out an application, pay a fee and become a member of a private club before setting foot in a bar.

“It’s 40 years of oppression come to an end,” said Dave Morris, owner of the bar Piper Down in Salt Lake City. “There’s this national perception that we don’t have bars here, so hopefully this gets out there that we’re open for business.”

The new rules are an effort to boost the state’s $7 billion-a-year tourism industry and make the state appear a little less quirky to outsiders. In Salt Lake City, Morris has organized two days of 16-bar pub crawls to celebrate the novelty of being allowed into a bar without having to pay first. One crawl is set for Wednesday, another for Friday.

About 35 miles north, in Ogden, bartender Rich Miros at Brewskis happily scraped off lettering on the door that said the bar was a private club. The bar gets plenty of tourists from a nearby downtown hotel and skiers coming back from a day at the slopes at nearby Snowbasin.

“It’s a great opportunity,” he said of the change to becoming a public bar. “It needed to be changed a long time ago.”

Utah has long had a host of liquor laws that befuddled newcomers, but none was as maddening as the state’s private club system, created primarily to shield Mormons from alcohol while allowing drinkers to imbibe heavily taxed booze.

About 60 percent of the state’s population and more than 80 percent of state lawmakers belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which tells its members to abstain from alcohol.

While technically private, anyone willing to pay a membership fee costing at least $12 a year could come into a bar. Each bar required a separate membership.

Temporary memberships lasting up to three weeks were available for no less than $4, but limited the number of guests members could bring to seven. No memberships were needed to go into a bar that only served beer.

Anything that normalizes liquor laws for out-of-state visitors is good for Utah, said Steve Lindburg, general manager of a downtown hotel and a member of the state tourism board.

“People didn’t understand. People felt isolated or even turned away,” he said. “Now, that kind of becomes moot.”

But not everyone’s enamored of the new changes.

Just down the street from Brewskis at the Kokomo Club, which caters to locals, a handful of early-morning patrons sipped on pitchers of beers and played games of pool, while also expressing caution about what the changes might bring.

“It helped keep strange people out of here, and now that it’s open to the public, there might be more fights,” said Curtis Cain, a 46-year old local mechanic.

More on Utah

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