As Maryland's strictest anti-smoking law heads to court, the owners of Howard County restaurants say their bar customers have already reached a verdict -- in favor of smoke.
Smoke-free dining rooms do brisk business at lunch and dinner, restaurateurs report. But come "happy hour" or Friday night, cigarettes rule.
Finding ways to accommodate smokers, owners say, can mean the difference between profit and loss -- meaning the stakes are high for the court fights that could affect the smoking restrictions.
Smoking hasn't been allowed in Dodder & Poddle, an Irish pub in Columbia's Long Reach Village Center, since the Howard County law took full effect Jan. 1. That has meant a decline in sales of $2,000 to $3,000 a week -- enough to threaten the pub's future, says owner Floyd Markowitz.
"You just don't see nonsmokers in bars during happy hour," Markowitz says.
Howard County's anti-smoking law -- one of the East Coast's toughest -- prohibits smoking in the county's 300 restaurants, except in sealed-off, separately ventilated bar areas.
Two months after the law took full effect, between 10 and 20 county restaurants still permit some smoking, but many had to build new smoking rooms costing thousands of dollars. Some did major renovations costing more than $100,000.
Michael's Pub in Columbia's Kings Contrivance Village Center spent that much creating a new smokers' bar -- jokingly called "the sinners' side" by owner Shane Curtis. It's busy at happy hour -- the after-work, before-dinner period -- while the nonsmoking side is dead.
"We've got all the loud people over here," says manager Sharon Prins-Snowberger, standing on the smokers' side. "We're waiting for the quiet people to show up."
Bare Bones, on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, has seen its business surge by 20 percent after a $300,000 renovation and expansion that, among other things, created a 130-seat smoking room with a bar.
One restaurant that has not done construction, Clyde's in Columbia's Town Center, is emerging as the legal test case for the controversial law.
Howard County filed a 10-count civil lawsuit in February alleging that Clyde's had flouted the law by allowing its customers to smoke in areas not sealed off from the rest of the restaurant. County officials say they expect Clyde's to respond by asking that the law be overturned.
Restaurant owners, county officials and anti-smoking activists are watching that case, particularly now that the the prospect of the County Council revisiting the issue has virtually vanished.
The Howard County Chamber of Commerce last month sent county officials a letter complaining that the law was unclear, but the chamber chose not to request its repeal, as some restaurateurs wanted.
"Perhaps a court resolution to this matter is exactly what this situation needs," said chamber President Bruce Taub, a lawyer. "My personal opinion is it belongs in the court."
Pub Date: 3/10/97