They've become a rarity in Maryland bars, but on Tuesday afternoon they filled the Crossroads Inn in Keymar: smokers, lighting up and puffing away without shame or trepidation.
What's more, seated or standing alongside were nonsmokers, enjoying themselves without fanning away the fumes or complaining about the hazards of secondhand smoke.
"It doesn't bother me," said Robert Howard. The Taneytown resident surveyed the place to distinguish smokers and nonsmokers before spotting regular patron James Brown of Keysville at the other end of the bar.
"Hey Jim, do you smoke?" Howard asked.
"Like a train," Brown replied, just before lighting up.
Such gatherings are common at the Crossroads. The Carroll County bar is one of 11 places in Maryland that have been granted a temporary waiver from the state's Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007, which prohibits smoking in virtually all indoor public places.
To receive a waiver, an establishment must show a 15 percent decrease in food and beverage sales over a two-month period compared with the same period during the previous two years. The waivers expire Jan. 31, 2011.
Crossroads owner Tim Brandenburg said business at the bar dropped 60 percent after the ban took effect, as many of his customers opted for smoking bars just over the Pennsylvania border.
With the waiver, business has returned to normal levels, he said. The Crossroads hops with smokers and nonsmokers alike - loud banter, lively music and the cracking sound of billiards. And though Brandenburg has a separate room for nonsmokers, many choose to hang out with the smoking crowd instead.
In fact, the only day that the bar isn't bustling is on Mondays, when the Crossroads must comply with the smoking ban. The one-day prohibition was enacted at the start of the year, part of the state's plan to phase out smoking at places with waivers. Next year, such venues must designate two or three nonsmoking days.
Brandenburg cringes at the thought of losing another smoking day, and on Mondays he gets a glimpse of what might become of his bar when the waiver expires.
Last Monday afternoon, the Crossroads was as quiet as a morgue. At a time when many people usually pour in after work, only three patrons were present.
On a smoking day, Brandenburg says, his bar can ring up as much as $1,000 in sales. On Monday, receipts totaled $138.
"Without the smoking, it's a ghost town here," said Brandenburg, a former drywall contractor who purchased the Crossroads five years ago. "When it comes time to take smoking out of here completely, I'm out of business."
That's because Brandenburg's tavern is a blue-collar, everybody-knows-your-name gathering place where smoking is part of the ambience. Smokers who frequent the Crossroads say bars and smoking are intertwined, while the nonsmokers say they don't mind the fumes and enjoy the bar scene.
Both assert that prohibiting people from lighting up in a bar is unreasonable.
"If they cut down smoking here completely, I wouldn't come in at all," Brown said. "I think they should have bars that are nonsmoking and bars that are smoking. I can see both sides of it. I can see the health issues. But on the other hand, if you don't want to be around that element ... they should have bars for nonsmokers."
Howard says he welcomes the ban in office buildings and workplaces, but not in bars. In a previous job as an office manager for Giant Food, he recalled going into a break room to eat. "I would think, 'This is gross.'
"But in a bar? In a bar, people should be allowed to smoke. I think [the ban] is terrible. For small-business owners, it's affected them in an adverse way."
Last year, Brandenburg posted a sign chiding the governor for the ban: "Impeach O'Malley. No Smoking, No Business."
After receiving a waiver, Brandenburg replaced the sign with huge placards: "This is a Smoking Bar." Situated at the corner of routes 77 and 194, the Crossroads draws motorists from as far away as the Washington area. Brandenburg says they stop for a smoke and a drink or a bite to eat en route to Western Maryland or Pennsylvania.
When the Crossroads was initially hit hard by the ban, some patrons organized a fundraiser that took in $1,500 to help keep Brandenburg's business afloat. He said many of them aren't aware that the Crossroads must go smokeless in less than two years.
"After smoking is done in here, the way I look at it is, we're all done," Brandenburg said.
That would make public smoking options more scarce. The Crossroads is one of only three public establishments in the region with a waiver. The other two are in Baltimore: the Ropewalk Tavern, a Federal Hill bar where smoking is allowed in a room on the third floor; and the Havana Club, a downtown cigar bar and nightclub where smoking is allowed throughout the premises.
Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the state environmental health coordination program, said three applications for waivers are pending, and three venues that applied have been denied.