Stakes high in showdown on smoking Restaurant owners say happy hour attracts smokers

Some businesses hurting

County lawsuit against Clyde's may be test case

March 10, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

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. 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."

Will Reich, owner of Jilly's restaurant on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, says he spent $7,000 constructing a smoking room that complies with the law, but he still lost smoking customers who thought Howard was totally smoke free.

Frankie's 8 Ball cafe on U.S. 29 in Scaggsville also lost business ++ when it briefly banned smoking, says owner Ian Herbert, who is now remodeling to comply with the law. "People were walking in, looking at the signs and walking right out of here," he said.

Business surged

But 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 created a 130-seat smoking room with a bar.

"I think I'm taking up business because of it," says co-owner Steve McClune. "Either [smokers] are going to go to Baltimore County, or they're going to come to me."

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 allowed 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 prospect of the County Council revisiting the issue has virtually vanished.

Not seeking repeal

The Howard County Chamber of Commerce last month sent county officials a letter complaining that the law was unclear, but the chamber -- which may have the political clout to revive the issue -- chose not to request its repeal.

"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."

In addition to the county's battle with Clyde's, legal action is brewing on another front.

Rockville attorney Neil B. Katz, general counsel to the Coalition for Smoke Free Maryland Workplaces, also based in Rockville, has sent letters to about 10 county restaurants asking them to eliminate smoking voluntarily.

If they don't, Katz says he may sue them for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act because several clients have severe reactions that make smoky bars inaccessible -- in the same way a store with steps is not accessible to people in wheelchairs.

John O'Hara, president of the Group Against Smokers Pollution and one of the clients listed in Katz's letters, says he gets severe headaches and burning, watery eyes that force him to leave any room with smoke.

"We believe that people with disabilities need to be treated like first-class citizens rather than second-class citizens," O'Hara said.

The Coalition for Smoke Free Maryland Workplaces, the most aggressive of the groups active in Howard County, tried a similar approach last fall, filing complaints against 13 restaurants with the county's Office of Human Rights. Last month, the office dismissed those claims.

"To the extent that complainant believes she was discriminated against because she was not able to enjoy the bar area as opposed to the restaurant, the Office of Human Rights finds that such a distinction is not one which the law recognizes as discrimination," the rulings say.

Many restaurants have received the letters from Katz.

Jilly's owner Reich reacted angrily to the letter, particularly to a passage that asked the restaurant to pay the legal expenses of Katz's clients.

"I'd like to know what he's been smoking," says Reich.

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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