Saturday, May 25, 2019
More from MPR


Hennepin County scales back smoking ban

Larger view
Bar owners hugged after the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners weakened a controversial ban on smoking. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
In a close vote, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday softened its smoking ban ordinance. A new resolution allows smoking in private clubs and in establishments that sell more liquor than food. County officials say the new ordinance will apply to less than 100 establishments, and the exemptions provided by the new law will expire in a little over a year and a half. However, some who favor the new ban call it a victory for small bar owners.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Starting at the beginning of next year, establishments that sell more liquor than food or qualify as a private club will be able to allow their patrons to smoke.

Commissioner Mark Stenglein, who authored the new Hennepin County smoking ordinance, says he wanted the county's law to resemble the Ramsey County ordinance. Stenglein says he was inspired to craft the change after hearing from small bar owners who told him their patrons went elsewhere to smoke.

"It is a move. It is a move to help equalize things. It is a move to help give them a break. These are small businesses that have a lot of life savings in. And I appreciate that," he said.

However the new ordinance differs from Ramsey County's law. Unlike in Ramsey County, restaurants with bar areas will not be able to seal off their bar areas and allow smoking there. And new establishments won't get exemptions.

Commissioner Peter McLaughlin added the language forbidding those exemptions. McLaughlin was the swing vote for the new ordinance. He says he supports a change to the ordinance because he says it's the best way to encourage the state to adopt a similar statewide ban.

"The reality is that the statewide, all-out ban proposal is dead in the water for now. We are not moving ahead and will not if we follow the current strategy. I believe that a phased approach will get us there quicker statewide; get us more public health faster, than pursuit of an immediate, full statewide ban," according to McLaughlin.

But others on the Board call it a step backward. Commissioner Gail Dorfman says the new ordinance will hamper efforts to get a statewide ban. The board oversees the finances of of the Hennepin County Medical Center. Dorfman says part of their job is to promote health among county residents.

"I feel like the action we took last fall was the responsible thing to do as a health authority and rolling it back now is, frankly, an irresponsible action for a public health authority," she said.

Rolling it back now is, frankly, an irresponsible action for a public health authority
- Gail Dorfman, Hennepin County commissioner

Some commissioners also opposed the ban because it'll create more of a patchwork of laws between cities. The St. Paul City Council appears to be on the verge of passing a total ban similar to the city of Minneapolis.

County officials say the new ordinance will apply to fewer than 100 establishments that lie inside county borders, but outside of cities that have their own smoking bans -- like Minneapolis, Golden Valley and Bloomington.

Hennepin County commissioners say the smoking ban issue has brought more passionate public testimony than any other item to come before them. Since they enacted the ban at the end of March, opponents to the law have come to numerous public hearings in front of the board to speak in protest. Scores of bar owners and American Legion members have shared anecdotes of declining revenues.

The bar owners came out in force again in anticipation of the board's final vote. They sat outside the board room watching the vote on a large-screen television.

One of the bar owners who will be eligible to get an exemption from the smoking ban is Martin Duffy. He owns Duffy's bar in Osseo.

"This is great this is wonderful," he said.

Duffy wiped away tears as some of his fellow barowners embraced. He is one of many bar owners who testified at public meetings about how the ban has hurt his business. He says the new law will help him get back on his feet.

"I'll get 15 percent of the customers I lost and they'll bring their friends. It's tremendous. My employees will be able to get paid again at the rate they were before this took place," he said.

Bar owners who fought against the Hennepin County smoking ban say they will now take aim at Minneapolis, Golden Valley and Bloomington. However, political support for the bans appears strong in those cities. And anti-tobacco groups say opinion polls show widespread public support for smoking bans.