Howard bars brace for a smoke-free life

Owners worry about the potential economic effect of a ban

June 07, 2006|By TYRONE RICHARDSON | TYRONE RICHARDSON,SUN REPORTER

On a quiet evening, less than a mile from where Howard County's lawmakers were busy approving a ban on smoking at all restaurants and bars, Kevin Basciano and John Scafidi sat in Ellicott City's Phoenix Emporium, puffing cigarettes and sipping bottles of beer.

They both smoke but admit they don't like the smell it leaves on their clothing - or the feeling it gives to an establishment.

"If I'm dressed nicely, I don't want to go somewhere and smell like smoke," said Scafidi, 30, of Philadelphia, as he took a puff of his cigarette and reached for an ashtray.

"If you go into a restaurant and people are smoking, you just feel dirty," said Basciano, 31, of Ellicott City.

Monday's 3-2 County Council vote on the bill, which is scheduled to be signed into law today by County Executive James N. Robey, gives establishments that allow smoking until June 2007 to comply with the ban.

Some bar and restaurant owners on Ellicott City's Main Street expect the smoking ban to chase customers to neighboring areas like Baltimore County, which is just across the border from Ellicott City.

"If somebody has to leave the building each time they want to get a cigarette, eventually, after two or three times, they will continue to their car and keep going," said Rick Winter, co-owner of Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. on Main Street in Ellicott City.

Winter, who is a smoker, testified at an earlier hearing that he and his partners spent $300,000 to install separate ventilation equipment for their bar in 1996, and he opposed changing the law now. He now plans to consult a legal adviser to see whether he has any recourse.

Mark Hemmis, owner of the Phoenix Emporium, said one business owner was told that he would have to change his business model to survive.

"This building has been selling alcohol - smoking and drinking - since 1885. It's not easy to change the business model," he said.

In the weeks before the County Council took a vote, Hemmis began telling customers that the ban was likely to happen.

"Customers ask about the implications of it and are just surprised that an establishment like this is being targeted," he said.

But some smokers at the Emporium on Monday night said they would be willing to adjust to the smoking ban.

"I respect that other people don't want to be around smokers," said Tim Hoffman, 28, of Baltimore, though he said he found the ban somewhat annoying. "They simply come out to the bar to drink and they are set."

Scafidi and Basciano said they would be willing to curb their smoking habits while in Howard County's bars and restaurants.

"If it's the thing they want us to do, then we have to just go outside and smoke," Scafidi said.

Other smokers took a harsher view.

"I think they should leave us alone and just let us smoke here," said Mike Weltz, 30, of Columbia, as he stood near the bar counter in the Phoenix Emporium with a cigarette in his hand. Steve Springle, 28, of Ellicott City said he lived in New York City when the city's smoking ban was enacted in 2003.

"What I did was it caused me to bar-hop instead of spending all my time in the bar," Springle said. "I would smoke in between - from one bar to the next."

Springle said he might host more at-home get-togethers when the ban takes effect in Howard County.

Gisela Woelper, owner of the Friendly Inn on Frederick Road in Ellicott City, expects the ban will upset some of her regular customers.

"Our customers are mostly construction workers and blue collar, and they smoke. It will probably raise the roof a bit, but it's a sign of the times," she said.

Woelper said she doesn't worry about the impact on business because all county bars and restaurants have to abide by the smoking law.

"It could be a problem, but now that everybody will have to follow the rule, it's not," she said.

But Woelper also said the ban could complicate life for bar owners and bartenders.

"People will go outside to smoke, and you can't control them," she said. "You can't go outside and see if they are smoking pot or something."

In addition, she said, "They may want to take their drinks with them to go smoke - and they can leave on a bar tab because they will go outside and then just leave."

Conor Riley, bartender at the Phoenix Emporium, said he doesn't expect to have trouble keeping on top of customers and their tabs. But he worries that because Howard is the first county in the Baltimore area to ban smoking, customers could opt instead for bars just across the border in Baltimore County.

He added: "Talking with buddies at other places with bans, they say ever since the ban went into effect, it has killed the business in the bars," he said. "I think the whole thing is just people getting over it, and that's going to take time."

tyrone.richardson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this article.

Smoking ban at a glance

The smoking ban Howard County Executive James N. Robey is expected to sign today would:

Give county bars and restaurants that currently allow smoking until June 1, 2007, to comply.

Prohibit smoking in enclosed outdoor restaurant areas.

Within 60 days of being signed into law, prohibit outdoor smoking at entertainment or sporting events and within 15 feet of a public building's door or window, except on Main Street in Ellicott City and at outdoor restaurants.

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