Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Businesses prepare for smoking ban

Health officer says alternative for eateries can be a challenge

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
Rachelle Treon of Mount Airy (center) smokes at the Memories Charcoal House in Mount Airy on Saturday night. Starting Friday, a statewide ban will prohibit customers from smoking in restaurants and other establishments.
The American Legion Post 191 in Mount Airy, as well as other establishments across the state, will no longer be able to offer patrons a choice of smoking or non-smoking starting Friday.

A statewide ban, which applies to most public places as well as nonprofit private clubs, will take effect.

The legion has been preparing customers for the ban, said Lisa Hibbs, club manager.

Staff put up signs to let people know about the change in state law, Hibbs said. ‘‘Everybody knew ahead of time so it’s not going to be a surprise to them,” she said.

Hibbs said she is unsure how the ban would affect business since it applies to clubs, restaurants and bars across the board — not just the legion.

‘‘It’s not just our establishment,” she said. ‘‘It’s every place.”

A decision has not been made regarding whether the legion will create an outdoor area for smoking customers, Hibbs said.

Some restaurant owners are finding ways to adjust to the ban and accommodate smokers.

‘‘Well, we have a large patio area outside that seats 90,” said Reid Roberts, owner of Memories Charcoal House in Mount Airy. Three propane heaters will make the porch usable throughout the year, depending on the weather.

Roberts said Memories, which has been open for 14 years, caters to smokers and non-smokers. The restaurant has ‘‘pretty much a well-even split” of smoking and non-smoking customers, he said.

His customers are aware of the upcoming change, Roberts said, adding several expressed frustration that the state took away their choice as well as that of restaurant owners.

Roberts hasn’t posted signs about the ban and doesn’t plan to, he said.

With the ban starting on a weekend, and Super Bowl Sunday in the midst of it, Roberts said there are several televisions in Memories that can be turned so patrons at the outdoor patio can smoke without missing part of the game.

He said he isn’t sure how the ban would affect business. ‘‘I really can’t answer that,” Roberts said.

While the ban could keep smokers away, it could also bring in patrons who avoided the restaurant because it allowed smoking, Roberts said. ‘‘So, it could go just the other way.”

Restaurant owners who feel that no smoking hurts their business can file a waiver to allow smoking, said Larry Leitch, Carroll County’s health officer.

However, owners must prove the restaurant has at least a 15 percent reduction in gross sales over a two-month span compared to the previous two years, he said.

That means owners would have to wait until April 1 to file for a waiver.

Owners can also apply for a waiver ‘‘for undue financial hardship” if they do no recover from spending money on construction and equipment to become smoke-free, Leitch said.

A third way is if something other than financial hardship makes compliance unreasonable, he said, adding the state document does not provide examples of what that would be.

Getting the waiver approved appears to be difficult, Leitch said.

‘‘The waiver form itself is a very formidable form,” he said. ‘‘It’s about 18 pages, and a lot of material has to be submitted.”

‘‘I doubt that the average restaurant or tavern owner would be able to do it themselves,” Leitch said. ‘‘They might have to have an accountant or CPA.”

The form also requires owners to explain how they would work to become smoke-free by Feb. 1, 2011, the date on which every business must be smoke-free.

Leitch said he expects few waivers to be filed.