Restaurant owners protest city candle ban

Temporary action needed to enforce laws, chief says

April 16, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The romance of candlelight dinners in Baltimore has been snuffed out -- at least temporarily.

Mindful of recent tragedies in Chicago and Rhode Island, Baltimore's new fire marshal has imposed a ban on candles, oil lamps or any other unattended "open flame" device in the city's bars and restaurants.

"With candles burning, it's real cozy and romantic," said Fire Division Chief Theodore G. Saunders, who became the city's fire marshal in December. "I like that when I go out with my wife. But safety first."

The news -- passed mostly by word of mouth among distressed restaurateurs -- has sparked a protest by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which sent a letter of protest to Saunders.

"This came out of the blue, with no consultation," said Melvin Thompson, vice president of government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "Is it to draw more media attention to their office?"

But Saunders said the ban, issued last month, is only a temporary measure to give his office time to actively enforce regulations that have languished on the books for years. Strictly speaking, restaurants are supposed to have a permit if they use candles, but virtually none do, he said.

Since permits require inspections, it could be a long wait for the city's hundreds of eating and drinking establishments to receive permission to relight their candles.

"We can allow it [candlelight] on a regulated, case-by-case basis," said Saunders, whose office inspects for code compliance and investigates fires.

He said there have been no restaurant fires in the city caused by candles in recent years, although seven people died in three fires in homes caused by candles in 2000. A bar in Canton known for its use of candles, Good Love Bar, burned down March 23, but the cause was determined to be careless smoking, Saunders said.

Nationwide, the number of candle-related fire fatalities each year increased threefold in the 1990s, to 15,000, he said.

Baltimore's temporary ban will not affect candles in churches, temples or other houses of worship. The law distinguishes between unattended flames used to enhance atmosphere and those used for religious purposes.

Tom Foulkes, a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association in Washington, said no other city that he knows of has halted the use of candlelight in restaurants.

Foulkes, 28, who is getting married in Baltimore this spring, said he and his fiancee visited hotels and restaurant last weekend. "The big topic of discussion was, `Are you telling me I can't have candles at my ceremony?' " he said.

Saunders said he became concerned after a fire Feb. 20 in a West Warwick, R.I., nightclub killed 99 people. The fire was caused by an indoor fireworks display. The same week, the use of pepper spray set off a stampede in a Chicago nightclub that resulted in 21 deaths.

Although neither tragedy involved candles, Saunders said a restaurant fire could result in a similar panic and loss of life.

But restaurant owners such as Paul Oliver, owner of Dalesio's of Little Italy, chafe at the sight of white tablecloths at night without the element of fire to light up a room.

"This is overkill. We're a special occasion restaurant, with engagements and everything," Oliver said. "We have candles on the table, but we don't light them. We're missing a decorative piece of atmosphere."

Saunders, a 25-year Fire Department veteran, said he knows of no other jurisdiction taking such a far-reaching step. Faron Taylor, the spokesman for the state fire marshal's office, said no other place in the state has imposed such a ban.

Yesterday, Irving Owens, the Rhode Island fire marshal, praised Saunders as a "stand-up guy" for instituting the city's candlelight freeze. But his office hasn't taken a similar step.

"We're looking at the entire code relative to places of assembly. ... I can't fault [Saunders] for that action," Owens said.

Thompson, with the Restaurant Association of Maryland, called the move "haphazard," coming without any advance notice to the association.

Saunders said he has challenged the industry to come back to him with proposed regulations for the safe use of candles, such as restricting them to holders, behind tempered glass or keeping them at least a foot from other objects. In the meantime, his office won't be extinguishing every birthday cake candle.

"We wouldn't be busting their chops for that," he said. "We're not trying to be tyrants."

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