Restaurants face tougher anti-smoking policy Fines, not warnings, for noncompliance

July 31, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County officials -- fearing their leniency on the new anti-smoking law has bred more defiance than compliance -- soon will begin fining restaurants that don't have concrete plans for renovations required by the law.

The decision is a partial retreat from County Executive Charles I. Ecker's plan to issue only warnings the first six months after the law took effect July 1.

In a June letter to Howard restaurant owners, Ecker extended that grace period to those "actively taking steps to comply with the law." But few county restaurants -- some of whom face renovation bills of up to $100,000 -- are meeting that requirement, county officials say.

"They're bucking it big time," said William A. Thies Jr., a top Ecker aide charged with implementing the smoking law. "You could spend the next couple of evenings going to some of the most popular places in Howard County and none of them are in compliance."

The law, passed in 1993, bans smoking in restaurants, except in enclosed, separately ventilated bar areas. Ninety county restaurants have liquor licenses. Smoking is prohibited altogether in the 220 county restaurants without liquor licenses.

Because of a loophole, the law virtually exempts the 39 county bars that are not part of restaurants.

In the four weeks since the law took effect, not a single restaurant owner has called the county for advice or to request a building permit for renovations related to the anti-smoking law.

In an interview yesterday, Ecker said he's not convinced that restaurants aren't complying but acknowledged he caused some confusion by not clearly explaining the conditions of his grace period when he last wrote to restaurant owners in June.

"I realize that it wasn't very good wording on my part," he said. "I need to define it."

In a second letter scheduled to be sent to restaurant owners next week, Ecker said he plans to define it this way: Those that apply for building permits in the next 30 days can keep their grace period until Jan. 1. And those that don't apply for building permits face fines up to $250 as early as September.

Anti-smoking activists, who have worked closely with county officials in recent weeks, applaud the move. "I really think the county is trying," said Peg Browning, an Ellicott City woman who lost her larynx to cancer caused by smoking, "but I still think this should have been done two years ago."

The tougher policy will not be welcome news to the county's restaurant owners, some of whom say they're already frustrated by both the law and poor communication from county officials.

"We're not happy about it, and we think it's potentially going to have an incredibly negative effect on our business," said Tony Moynagh, general manager of Clyde's restaurant in Columbia. "In effect, we feel it's going to force us to exclude a part of our market."

To continue legally allowing smokers, Moynagh says Clyde's plans to spend between $80,000 and $100,000 to enclose its 75-seat bar -- an area which accounts for 25 percent of the restaurant's receipts.

Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Columbia faces a similar bill for renovations but isn't prepared to spend the money. Managing partner Craig Hawkins says he'll ignore the law as long as he can. If police come calling, he says, Ruby Tuesday will become nonsmoking and not build an enclosed smoking area.

"I call it the leprosy colony," Hawkins said. "It's like sending people who want to smoke cigarettes into their own chamber."

Carl Childress, owner of the Forest Diner in Ellicott City, says he wants to abide by the law. He has even set aside an enclosed, separately ventilated room for smokers. "Nobody's been here to explain it to me," Childress said. "We just did what we thought was right."

But he still is violating the smoking law because his restaurant does not serve liquor.

When told of that part of the law, Childress said, "I think I deserve to have a smoking section as much as someone who serves liquor, because I serve coffee."

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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