Mayor snuffs ban on dining by candle

But restaurants must seek permits by month's end

April 17, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley struck a blow for romance yesterday, prompting his fire chief to work out a compromise with the restaurant industry so that candles can be legally lighted in Baltimore's public dining places once again.

"I believe in candlelight dinners," proclaimed the mayor, who said he learned yesterday by reading it in The Sun that the Fire Department had issued a temporary ban on candles, oil lamps and other unattended flames in the city's restaurants and bars. He called William J. Goodwin, the fire chief, and demanded an explanation.

"I didn't use any bad language, but I called Chief Goodwin and asked, `What's the deal with this?'" O'Malley said. "Chief Goodwin said, `We just want to make sure that the restaurants are responsible with candles, after the tragedies in Rhode Island and Chicago.'"

Goodwin and Division Chief Theodore G. Saunders, the fire marshal, put the candlelight ban in place last month as a result of two nightclub disasters in Chicago and Rhode Island, both in February. In Chicago, the use of pepper spray set off a stampede that resulted in 21 deaths. In West Warwick, R.I., 99 people died in a fire caused by indoor fireworks.

An average of 400 fires are caused each year nationwide by candles in eating and drinking establishments, Saunders said.

Goodwin defended the decision - decried by scores of restaurant owners who depend on candlelight - as a reasonable reaction. "Every time there's a major loss of life, fire officials take a hard look at what could have prevented it and places of public assembly," he said yesterday.

The fire chief said he was only trying to give more teeth to a law in the fire code that allows candlelight in restaurants only with a permit.

But in the face of fierce opposition from restaurateurs, and prodding from O'Malley, Goodwin and Saunders crafted a compromise yesterday in a meeting with Melvin Thompson, a vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, and Eddie Dopkin, owner of Loco Hombre, a restaurant in North Baltimore.

Under terms of the compromise, restaurants may resume using candles immediately as long as they meet certain conditions: The candles must be in noncombustible holders, and cannot be used on the floor to mark walkways.

Restaurant owners who intend to use candles must apply for a permit by the end of the month, Saunders said. He said the fire marshal's office could complete next month on-site inspections of all those restaurants requesting a permit.

Thompson estimated that 150 to 200 restaurants in Baltimore use candlelight to enhance the atmosphere. His association will help the Fire Department identify the restaurants that should apply for permits.

One such establishment is Pierpoint on Aliceanna Street, owned by Nancy Longo.

"This was a huge thing and it was not funny. ... I found it insulting to suggest we would not use reasonable care," Longo said. "It bothered me. I had customers complaining that it looked naked in here."

By sunset yesterday, the candlelight fight was defused.

"Romantic candlelight dinners are alive and well in the city of Baltimore," O'Malley said.

Sun staff writer Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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