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Olympics Dry As A Bone

Finding a drink in Utah can be an Olympic event - and after all the running around involved, you might need two.

The restrictive alcohol regulations in this Mormon-dominated state are in the news lately because the 2002 Winter Olympics are drawing near.

At the most, light beer will be offered to Olympic spectators at only two already-licensed venues, during figure skating and hockey. Utah won't have any of the outdoor "beer tents" provided by other Olympic host cities.

The world's media and some Olympic officials have requested bar service at the normally dry Salt Palace convention center, but that has brought an indignant response from Utah legislative leaders.

Utah's myriad regulations governing liquor can be confusing, irritating and - particularly after a couple of stiff belts - even humorous.

The state has no open-door saloons. Full liquor service is available only to dues-paying members of "private" social clubs or at the 470 restaurants with liquor stocks they cannot advertise, display or even mention unless a customer asks first.

The state's 121 taverns can pour only "light" beer, or 3.2 percent alcohol, and no other alcoholic drinks. No membership is required at taverns. Grocery stores can sell only light beer, too.

Wine, hard liquor and heavy beer can be purchased at 36 state-run liquor stores - if you can find them. Typically they are tucked away in warehouse districts and off major thoroughfares.

A quota limits the number of private clubs to one per 7,000 Utah residents, or 295 clubs concentrated primarily in Salt Lake County and Park City. Minimum club dues by law are $12 a year, though visitors can buy a two-week membership for $5. Or visitors can ask the guy on the next barstool to sponsor them as guests.

"We have nothing to apologize for with our liquor laws," said Jerry Fenn, a teetotaling Mormon, lobbyist on liquor laws for his church, and former chairman of the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission. "People will be able to get a drink when they come to Utah."

Fenn's opinion is widely disputed by people who drink.

The latest flap over Utah's liquor laws came last month when an International Olympic Committee official complained that he and his wine could never be parted.
"As a Frenchman, I know that a Frenchman kept from his wine might get cranky," IOC spokesman Franklin Servan-Schrieber said.

Nicholas Hales, chairman of the liquor commission, has offered a solution that exposes the complexity of Utah's system of alcohol licenses and permits.

Olympic officials and the world's media, Hales said, need only find five or six sponsors to patch together a succession of 72-hour "single-event" permits for a month of bar service at the Salt Palace during the Olympics. Hales said any established news group could qualify as a sponsor.

The media, however, are unlikely to get round-the-clock alcohol service, evn though reporters will be working at all hours to meet deadlines across the world's time zones. Last call in Utah is 1 a.m. - no exceptions.

And thirsty visitors who think all they have to do is pack their suitcase with their beverage of choice should stand warned: it's a misdemeanor for anyone other than a licensed dealer to bring booze into the state. The penalty is up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

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