The following St. Louis Post-Dispatch story attracted lots of on-line comments from readers, quite a few being of the usual irrational or ill-informed variety.
For example, suggesting that because a business is privately-owned it should be immune from such government health regulation is illogical.
Another oft-repeated theme: If cigarettes are a legal product you should be allowed to light up anywhere. Pencils are legal products but you can’t stick them in someone else’s eye.
By MARGARET GILLERMAN > firstname.lastname@example.org 314-725-6758 and PHIL SUTIN > email@example.com 314-863-2812 | 89 Comments | Posted: Sunday, December 12, 2010 12:05 am
Among the hundreds of bars and restaurants in St. Louis and St. Louis County getting ready for the new smoking bans Jan. 2, the GB Field Old Timers Saloon may be fighting the hardest to get an exemption.
This neighborhood bar and restaurant has pretty much deleted the “restaurant” part of its description.
David Field, the owner, has closed most kitchen operations, reluctantly fired two cooks and two waitresses and reduced the menu to burgers and fries — all to get an exemption from the county ban.
In both the city and county, establishments can continue to allow smoking if their revenue from food does not exceed 25 percent of their combined food-alcohol revenue. While many of the 976 bars and restaurants in the county are already smoke-free or welcome the ban, Old Timers, at 9212 St. Charles Rock Road, is going a different route.
“We had to make a decision — we’ll either smoke or sell food,” manager Debi Sloan said. “We used to open at 6 a.m., had a full-service menu, and two or three daily specials.”
Her boss, Field, determined that the bar made more money than the restaurant, and on Nov. 29 closed the restaurant side — except for burgers and fries.
That followed the county’s rejection of his application for an exemption. He will be reapplying soon.
One afternoon last week, Old Timers had a good crowd, drinking and smoking. Some regulars said they missed the home-style meals once served there, but most said they would keep coming back.
Bob Swaim, 53, a smoker from neighboring Woodson Terrace, dislikes the change.
“I’m bummed,” he said. “I’d come in for two eggs, hash browns, bacon and toast. I didn’t eat anyplace else.”
He’s now eating a bowl of cold cereal at home.
Jane Northington, a nonsmoker from Bridgeton, used to come in for the daily special and says she’ll miss the ham and beans, cornbread, fried potatoes and raw onion. Now she has the burger and fries.
“I think people have a right to smoke like people have a right to drink,” she said.
Sloan said the changes should be a financial wash for the establishment, with the drop in revenue being matched by a drop in costs.
But she said it hurt to see her friends lose jobs.
65 PERCENT BACKING
The county ban was passed by 65 percent of the voters in November 2009. The city Board of Aldermen had already approved a similar measure, contingent on county passage.
The county ban affects both municipalities and unincorporated areas. Kirkwood, Ballwin and Clayton already have bans, and Brentwood and Creve Coeur enacted them this year. The Brentwood and Creve Coeur bans do not allow exemptions for bars that serve little food. The Brentwood ban takes effect Jan. 1, and the Creve Coeur ban the next day.
In the county, the Revenue Department processes requests for exemptions. As of Friday, the department had granted 42 exemptions and denied three; two are pending.
The names of those getting exemptions, most of them in South County, are on the Revenue Department’s website at bit.ly/ggp3wh.
Eugene Leung, director of revenue, noted that his licensing section had only three people and must largely rely on forms filled out by applicants. The staff, however, does check to see if information on the form is consistent with other business data the revenue office has, he said.
Bars that obtain exemptions must post a ‘smoking allowed” sign near their entrance.
The county health department will enforce the ordinance, said Joyce Theard, the department’s environmental administrator.
The department has 21 environmental inspectors — who mainly conduct restaurant inspections — to respond to complaints, she said. They and some other health department employees will soon receive training about the smoking ban, Theard said.
Pamela Rice Walker, acting health director for the city, said she expected that about 100 establishments in the city might qualify for exemptions.
So far, none of the city’s 765 bars and restaurants licensed to serve liquor has applied for an exemption.
If any want an exemption, inspectors will visit the bar with a tape measure to make sure it meets the requirements.
Those with exemptions will have to post signs at the entrances and over the bar area in large black type: “WARNING: SMOKING ALLOWED HERE.”
The city hopes to detect violators at the same time the staff makes routine fire, building and health inspections.
The city has 16 inspectors altogether available for inspections.
City police will become involved only if a bar owner or manager calls police because of a customer who refuses to stop smoking or to leave. Walker said the health department would send out a letter soon, perhaps Monday, clarifying who may be exempted.
An unhappy recipient will be Joe Finn, co-owner of Pat’s Bar and Grill (formerly McDermott’s) in Dogtown. He sells a lot of food and has few options.
He’s quick to express his opposition to the city ordinance.
“I’ve done a good job collecting taxes for them, and their reward to us is to single us out and destroy our business,” Finn said.
“If I lose my smokers, it kills me, and if I lose my family business, it kills me.”
He also objects to the city’s prohibiting people younger than 21 from entering drinking establishments that hold exemptions.
If he were able to get an exemption, he said, “I’d be breaking the law if I let my children come in.
“The do-gooders of the world are going to bring our whole civilization to a crashing halt.”
Finn fears he will lose many customers to small bars with exemptions. But the playing field will level out on Jan. 1, 2016, when all bars and restaurants in St. Louis will lose their exemptions and go smoke-free.
Clayton restaurateur Frank Schmitz is looking forward to that level playing field in the county.
He led the fight against Clayton’s smoking ban, which went into effect in July.
He said bar sales at his Barcelona Tapas Restaurant fell 10 percent in the third quarter.
“I’ve lost a considerable amount of cash,” Schmitz said.
He added: “Right from the beginning, we felt it should have been implemented at the same time everywhere. There’s no choice now. People will go where they want to go again rather than going where they can smoke.”