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Business owners worry about effect of smoking bans
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Pat Fleury, who owns Shamrock's in St. Paul, says most business owners either can't afford or wouldn't have the space to build a private smoking room. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
The Minneapolis City Council may follow the St. Paul City Council's lead on a compromise approach to a proposed smoking ban. Votes on a proposed smoking ban are scheduled for next week in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. The St. Paul City Council changed its proposal from a full ban to a proposal that allows bars and restaurants to create a separate room for smokers. But bar and restaurant owners say they don't like the compromise and are still worried about the ban's impact on their economic future.

St. Paul, Minn. — Minneapolis City Council member Gary Schiff says the six City Council members who support the smoking ban have signed off on the St. Paul proposal. The idea is to keep the smoking ban consistent among bars and restaurants in St. Paul and Minneapolis. In both cities, smoking bans would forbid smoking in bars, restaurants, pool and bingo halls and bowling alleys.

Under the compromise, smokers could light up in those establishments as long as they smoke in an air-tight room, apart from non-smokers. The proposal is based on a law in Vancouver, Canada, where Schiff says he saw it at work last week.

"The smoke did not enter the bar and there were people in the smoking room enjoying themselves and the people came up to the bar to be served with alcohol. There was a TV in the smoking room and it was a separate little party going on from the rest of the bar and it worked out just fine. If I had not seen it myself, I would have been more dubious about whether or not this was a good solution but having seen it, I'm absolutely convinced this is a good way to go," he said.

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Image A compromise

But others say they're not so happy about the idea. Several St. Paul and Minneapolis business owners contacted by Minnesota Public Radio say they can't afford to build a separate room for smokers. The proposal would require the smoke-free rooms to be sealed off by a wall and a door. It would need to be fully ventilated and tightly sealed from the rest of the general public. Wait staff or other employees would not be allowed to enter the rooms.

Pat Fleury is the president of the St. Paul Hospitality Association and owns Shamrock's on West 7th. He says most business owners either can't afford or wouldn't have the space to build a private smoking room.

"It looks nice on paper but in reality it's not going to work for probably 95 or 99 percent of the people," he said.

Fleury says supporters of the ban in St. Paul and Minneapolis are moving too quickly. He would prefer to see a task force created so council members, public health officials and private business owners can resolve their differences. Fleury also says that he believes that private business owners should be the only ones to decide whether to ban smoking in their establishments. He says he's not a smoker. But he says 80 percent of his clientele and 75 percent of his employees are. He remodeled his bar four years ago and wouldn't be able to meet the requirements set forth in the most recent proposal.

"I have 12-foot-high, 1800-type tin ceilings. I can't put walls up. Because of my booths in here, I don't have the capabilities of doing anything like that so I'm out and so are most of the little places around. They just don't have the capabilities of doing that not to mention the expense," he said.

Supporters of the compromise say they think Fleury is over-estimating the cost. If a separate room is too costly, they argue the businesses can simply choose to go smokefree.

St. Paul City Council member Kathy Lantry proposed the compromise earlier this week. She describes the idea as a low-cost way of keeping smokers in an establishment without exposing wait staff and nonsmoking customers to second-hand smoke.

"This solution is fairly low tech. Sheet rock and two-by-fours are not particularly expensive. We're not talking about building a new addition or something like that. This is basically closing off where you would have a pool table," she said.

Even with a separate room for smokers, some business owners fear a loss of business to cities without smoking bans. Joe Letourneau, the assistant manager of West 7th Bingo in St. Paul, says a smoking ban would kill his business. He says the bingo hall already provides a separate room for non-smokers, which he says is mostly empty. Letrouneau says it's possible that bingo players could choose to play in other cities where they would be allowed to smoke.

"If the smoking ban came on and we didn't have crowds and we didn't have business, not only would our players not play and not only would we not have funds to give back to the community. But we also employ thirty people here that work at our hall on various days for both charities and those people would be out of work too," he said.

The St. Paul City Council has scheduled a full vote on the proposal for next Wednesday. The Minneapolis City Council is scheduled to vote on the issue next Friday.

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