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New liquor laws to match reality

Leaders of the Hospitality Industry Coalition "were shocked" to learn of changes to liquor laws announced by the province this week. The changes, which include allowing restaurants and bars to stay open until 4 a.m.

Leaders of the Hospitality Industry Coalition "were shocked" to learn of changes to liquor laws announced by the province this week.

The changes, which include allowing restaurants and bars to stay open until 4 a.m. (with municipal approval) and restaurant patrons to take home bottles of unfinished wine, generated headlines across the province.

One change, which allows restaurants to designate 20 per cent of their space, up to 40 seats, for drinking only, was strongly condemned by the coalition.

"This government has just allowed thousands of new bars to open up overnight with no community input or community approval," Dave Crown, president of the B.C. Liquor Licensee and Retailers Association, said in the coalition’s release.

But local restaurateur John Grills, who chairs Whistler’s Liquor Licence Advisory Committee, said the changes are really just streamlining the industry so the laws match reality.

"The new laws more or less mirror what’s been happening already," Grills said. "There won’t be dramatic change in Whistler."

At first glance many of the changes announced Monday seem to benefit restaurants, and the Hospitality Industry Coalition says that is at the expense of pubs, bars and cabarets.

"This decision by the government will have a direct financial impact on our members, especially those in rural B.C. who are already struggling in these tough economic times," said Dick Gibbons, a spokesman for the B.C. & Yukon Hotels Association and owner of Buffalo Bill’s, the Longhorn and Tapley’s Pub in Whistler. "For many this will be the last straw."

But Grills, who owns two restaurants in Whistler, Zeuski’s and Thai One On, counters that pubs and bars benefited from changes to liquor laws announced last year. Those changes allowed many bars to increase their licensed capacity by 50 per cent, or to the limit established by fire code for the building.

Earlier changes also meant a pub’s patio seats were no longer deducted from the establishment’s total licensed seating capacity. Grills said both of these changes were also a case of reforming the law to fit with reality.

"In some cases there was not a lot of relationship between a building’s size and its liquor licence," Grills said.

In Whistler there were eight establishments that applied to increase their capacity under the new rules. Those applications have come to Whistler council for comment, and been supported. Whistler is now submitting all applications for capacity increases to the province at once.

From a statistical perspective, the number of licensed seats in Whistler bars and clubs will increase this winter. From a practical point of view, Grills says little will change.

He also disputes the Hospitality Industry Coalition’s position that restaurants will turn into bars now that they don’t have to serve food with alcohol to some of their patrons.

"Some restaurants will increase their liquor sales, but at the same time the bars and hotels have been investing in their kitchens and competing with us for food," Grills said.

He called the allowance of drinking-only seats in restaurants "huge, something we’ve been fighting for for years," but said most restaurateurs want to operate restaurants, not bars.

"I’m not going into the bar business," he said.

Grills also noted that liquor inspectors have sweeping authority and the power to crack down on establishments that may flout the system.

Solicitor General Rich Coleman, in announcing the changes to liquor regulations, said that "Instead of enforcing a complex set of outdated regulations, police and liquor inspectors can focus on public safety issues like underage drinnking, intoxication, overcrowding and illegal liquor sales."

Among the other changes announced this week were:

• The reduction in the number of classes of liquor licences in B.C. from 19 to two: "food primary" for restaurants and cafes and "liquor primary" for bars, pubs, cabarets and lounges;

• Restaurants, bars, pubs and other licensed venues may open any time between 9 a.m. and 4 a.m., with the approval of local government;

• People who appear to be under 25 must show two pieces of identification;

• Communities will have more involvement in licensing decisions.

• Customers will be allowed to take home unfinished, resealed bottles of wine.

The new rules will come into effect Dec. 2.

Most of the changes announced this week, as well as the earlier changes, came from recommendations in consultant Jo Surich’s 1999 report to government.

The province also announced that effective immediately the moratorium on cold beer and wine stores had been lifted. Applications are being accepted until Nov. 29 from existing commercial bar and pub owners.