Tuesday, September 18, 2018
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Smoking ban not healthy for some bars
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Denise Freeman, owner of U Otter Stop Inn, worries she'll be out of business within two months if the smoking ban continues. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
Some Minneapolis bar owners claim significant losses of income following the smoking ban that started March 31st. A lawyer challenging the ban is working to speed up his case that's now on appeal because his clients may go out of business before the case is adjudicated. Elected leaders say they're sympathetic, but there's no momentum to change the law.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Just before happy hour at the U Otter Drop Inn in northeast Minneapolis about a dozen men sip bottled beers at one end of the triangular room. Owner Denise Freeman said the month-long smoking ban cleared the air in her bar. It also cleared out her business.

"(A) busy usual Thursday night you couldn't hardly move in here. People were having fun," Freeman said. "Now, last Thursday I was lucky to have 15 people in here." Freeman said the decline in business started right after the smoking ban did. Thirty percent the first week; 40 percent the next. She said her business dropped 65 percent the third week of the ban compared to the month before.

"I can't weather it," she said. "If it keeps going I will be out of business within two months. There's no way. My bills have not changed."

Freeman is one of a handful of business owners telling their stories of hardship to try to speed up a legal challenge to the smoking ban making its way through the courts. Attorney Ryan Pacyga says he intends to file a motion to expedite the case now in the State Court of Appeals. An appellate ruling can take two months or longer. Pacyga said his clients can't wait that long.

"There's a real demonstration now after we have collected numbers since the ban was imposed that the bans are hurting businesses and hurting them more, I think, than the advocates for the bans were willing to acknowledge," Pacyga said. "For that reason if the courts were to take a normal timeline to this case some bars may already be out of business."

Pacyga lost a lower court ruling before the ban started, in part because the judge said any lost income to the plaintiffs was speculative. Pacyga now has affidavits from bar owners who have cut employees as their bottom line slips into the red. He said liquor distributors back up claims that sales in areas with a smoking ban are down, and areas without the ban are up.

The bans are hurting businesses and hurting them more, I think, than the advocates for the bans were willing to acknowledge.
- Attorney Ryan Pacyga

"Business is down, generally, 25 percent to 35 percent after the smoking bans were imposed", he said.

The ordinance in Minneapolis prohibits smoking in both restaurants and bars. Smokers can still light up in bars in nearby St. Paul which is subject to the Ramsey County ordinance. Only businesses that take in more revenue from food are subject to the ban. The northeast Minneapolis bars say they're losing customers to nearby Ramsey County and to Anoka County, which has no smoking ban at all.

Several business owners have met with Minneapolis city elected leaders to try and make the ban closer to Ramsey County's less restrictive option. There's no movement so far. Council Member Dean Zimmerman is sympathetic to the bar owner's concerns.

"It isn't just northeast bars. Bars around the city are telling me things are tough," he said. But he said the smoking ban is standing firm as it's written.

"As near as I can tell in City Hall there is no critical mass of council members that would agree to a change at this time," Zimmerman said.

Since the ban started more than a month ago the hotline for bar patrons to report violations has taken only 51 calls. Half of those, city officials say, were complaints by people who wanted to smoke in their favorite establishment.

The city has initiated four surprise inspections but has yet to issue a single citation against a bar owner. Zimmerman said he's heard from some restaurants that have seen an increase in business. For now, he said bars in trouble will have to find a way to hang on.

"I guess weather it out," Zimmerman said. "See if they can't promote business using some other thing. Some bar owners are more creative than others. Try to think of something that would get people in..."

Such advice is little help to the Otter Bar's Denise Freeman. The extent of her bar menu stops at frozen pizzas. She said her customers come there for a drink and a smoke.

"My liquor license is the same as a bar that holds 300 people versus mine that holds 40 people. They have a restaurant. They have everything else to keep them in business. I don't have anything else."

The Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association continues a promotional campaign to encourage residents to go out and enjoy the new, cleaner air. So far, Freeman says those efforts are lost on her customers.