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Michigan lawmakers OK ‘beer walls,’ swim-up bars; ‘We need these things’

beer tap
Michigan’s hospitality industry lobbied for license changes to allow swim-up bars and beer and wine vending machines, saying other states have a competitive advantage. (Shutterstock)

Update: Michigan takes the plunge, becomes latest state to allow swim-up bars

LANSING – Swim-up bars and self-serve taps could be coming soon to a restaurant, bar, hotel or resort near you. 

Michigan legislators on Wednesday advanced bills they say could help businesses compete with other states and lure customers as they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also inspired laws allowing cities to create outdoor “social districts” for alcohol. 

Sponsor

Hotels, resorts and water parks that have a liquor license would have the option to open swim-up bars for adult customers under bipartisan House legislation headed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer after a 37-1 vote in the state Senate. 

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Bars, restaurants and other businesses with an “on-premises” liquor license would also be allowed to install “self-serve dispensing machines” — such as “tap walls” or “beer walls” — for customers to pour their own drinks, under a bill approved by the House Wednesday in a 78-28 vote.

The House on Tuesday also gave final approval to legislation that would allow 17-year-olds to serve alcohol at restaurants, provided they complete a training program and are supervised by someone 18 years or older.

“We're being creative and tinkering on the edges, if you will, on ways to help a still beleaguered industry, especially in the workforce side,” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, which lobbied for the swim-up bar legislation.

He said Michigan hotels and restaurants are making a comeback but the industry employs 35,000 fewer workers than before the pandemic, when there were about 435,000 employees.

"The challenge is the demand has surged and we don't quite have the supply yet to meet it,” Winslow told Bridge Michigan.

The pandemic has really “modified a lot of the thinking about customer service,” said Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, who sponsored the self-serve alcohol bill and said it would help Michigan catch up to dozens of states with similar laws. 

Self-serve taps would help customers wary of germs or airborne viruses — as well as businesses that have struggled to find workers amid a labor shortage that has grown "particularly acute,” Runestad told Bridge.

The proposal would allow alcohol dispensing machines in hotel rooms, at restaurant booths or elsewhere in a bar.  Customers would have to first show identification to purchase a secure key card they could scan to activate the tap and pour their own beer, wine or mixed drinks. 

The self-serve dispensers could pour up to 16 ounces of beer, 12 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of a mixed drink per serving. Customers would be limited to 32 total ounces unless a bartender or employee agrees to let them purchase more. 

"I've been at bars where people come up completely sloshed out of their mind, compose themselves enough to say 'another double,’ and a busy bartender gets them a drink," Runestad said. "This is much more safe because they'd have to come up and go through a process in order to get more alcohol."

The swim-up bar legislation is supported by businesses like the Bavarian Inn Lodge of Frankenmuth, which features four indoor pools and two water slides, and Boyne Mountain Resort in Boyne Falls, which includes Avalanche Bay Indoor Waterpark.

“Swim-up bars have been operated worldwide and in 24 states for many years,” Michael Zehnder of Bavarian Inn said last month in committee testimony, telling legislators his family has plans to grow their business “larger than ever.” “Neighboring states like Ohio and Wisconsin have had a competitive advantage over Michigan for years.”

Under the legislation, swim-up bars could only be operated by businesses that already hold an on-premises liquor license, and they could only be located in an "an exclusive area that is well defined, clearly marked and not accessible to minors."

The bars themselves would need to be made of a material that is "nonabsorbent" and contains no sharp edges. The swimming pool would need lifeguard service and could not contain a slide or diving board. 

The water would need to be treated with "heightened disinfection and filtration standards" and monitored with an electronic chemical control system. And the plates and cups would need to be made of plastic or another non-breakable material designed to "reduce the chances of spilling the food or beverage" in the water.

Sponsor

In committee testimony, Brian Shanle said his company — Kalahari Resort — has operated a swim-up bar in Sandusky, Ohio, since 2007. It’s an “overwhelming success” among adult customers who want a break from their kids or travel without their children, he said.

“Responsible service starts with the server and not the person, whether they're wet or dry,” Shanle said, acknowledging there is “risk” associated with operating any kind of bar.

The bipartisan legislation was sponsored by Republican Rep. Rodney Wakeman of Frankenmuth and Democratic Rep. John Cherry of Flint. It found widespread support in the Legislature. 

“We need these things,” Rep. Mike Mueller, R-Linden, said in committee. “To take kids to water parks, you got to be drunk, because it's just a disaster. So yeah, I think it's a good idea.”

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