Smoking ban is a draw and a drag

Montgomery's new law gets mixed reviews at bars

October 13, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

BETHESDA - The air was fresh and smoke-free inside Willie & Reed's yesterday, but outside the front door Patrick Bishop was in a foul mood over what he called "the dumbest law ever."

Bishop, assistant manager of the popular bar and restaurant, was sweeping up the bounty of cigarette butts deposited on the sidewalk by patrons who had stepped outside for a smoke - now banned indoors under a Montgomery County ordinance that took effect last week.

"Thank you, Montgomery County," he said. "Look at it - it's nasty."

Yesterday was the first football Sunday since the ban took effect, but if that was holding down the crowds at Willie & Reed's, it wasn't apparent to a first-time visitor. All barstools were occupied, along with all the tables, in a place that bills itself as Maryland's "ultimate sports bar."

Not an ashtray was in sight, and a prominent sign declared the new rule: No Smoking.

The strictest smoking ban in Maryland took effect in most of Montgomery County at 12:01 a.m. Thursday after four years of political maneuvering and court battles.

By adopting the ban, the suburban Washington county is following the lead of California, New York City, Delaware and other jurisdictions that have extended smoking restrictions into drinking spots.

Mixed reviews

Opinions at Willie & Reed's were divided on the wisdom of the ban.

Stacey Cohan of Bethesda stood outside smoking in what was becoming a large open-air ashtray. She wasn't happy.

"The government has no right to control what we do in private establishments," she said. "I may change some of my regular venues."

For some customers, the absence of smoke was a draw.

A Philadelphia man who declined to give his name because he said he has a job in the security field sat in the establishment with his wife and 3-month- old son, and said he wouldn't have brought the baby if smoking were permitted. "It's great. I really think that all states should follow suit," he said.

Matt Pearlman, an owner of the bar, said he is confident his regular customers will be loyal.

"People come here because of what you can offer - not necessarily because you can smoke or not smoke," he said.

Pearlman, a nonsmoker, said that while he opposed the ban, he can see some merit in it. "In a way I like it because I don't go home smelling like a cigarette butt," he said.

Regular customers differed on whether yesterday's crowd was down from previous Sundays.

Michelle Cullather, a Bethesda nonsmoker, thought it was. "A lot of my friends smoke and don't want to come now, so I think the crowd is definitely diminished," she said.

M.J. Masishin, a smoker, said she is sticking with her local pub to support its employees. She said the crowd appeared to be as big as ever, but she worried that wouldn't last.

"Whether they'll stay after the game they're watching if they're smoking, we'll have to wait and see," the Bethesda resident said.

David Weaver, chief spokesman for County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, said his boss signed the measure in July after vetoing an earlier version in 1999. Weaver said studies since then have shown such bans have not hurt business in other places that have adopted such ordinances.

"We have a lot more evidence than we did four years ago that the sky will not fall," Weaver said. "A majority of our restaurants were already smoke-free so this is not a major change in direction."

The ban went into effect after a judge declined to issue an injunction delaying it, ruling that a lawsuit by county restaurateurs challenging the measure was unlikely to prevail. An earlier suit succeeded when a court ruled the County Council improperly tried to get around Duncan's 1999 veto.

Through a quirk in the law, a few municipalities in the county - including Gaithersburg, Rockville and Kensington - remain exempt. Other towns, such as Chevy Chase and Takoma Park, have adopted the ban.

Weaver said he believes the holdout municipalities will soon adopt the ban, but until then some Montgomery smokers are flocking to those enclaves.

Making the commute

At Savannah's in Kensington, the bar was packed and filled with pungent clouds yesterday while the smoke-free restaurant section remained half-full.

Jenny Tarsha puffed on a Marlboro as she sat at the bar across from a bank of televisions tuned to football games.

Tarsha said she usually frequents taverns near her Bethesda home, but decided to travel about 3 1/2 miles to Kensington because the "ridiculous" ban doesn't apply there.

Down the bar sat Mike Roman, a bartender at Copeland's in Rockville. The Silver Spring resident said his employer decided to go along with the county ban even though it is in an exempt municipality. Roman said the ban is affecting business but "not too bad."

Puffing on a cigarette, Roman tried to see a bright side in the county ordinance - speculating that some people who don't like smoke will feel more comfortable in bars.

"It might bring a different crowd, but it's going to take some time," he said.

At Willie & Reed's, Pearlman was taking a philosophical view as well. He said he expects some of his customers will defect to bars in Washington - just two miles away - but noted that a similar ban has been proposed there.

"I think D.C.'s going to come on board," he said.

Cohan said she, too, expects Washington to copy the ban. "Maybe it'll have a positive effect and I'll quit," she said.

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