ROCKVILLE, Md. – A sign just inside Shelly’s Woodroast restaurant says smoking is allowed at the bar only.
As dinnertime approaches, dining room tables begin to fill, but the room is quiet compared to the smoky bar.
The bar, separated by a wall from the restaurant, is packed with people, mostly men in business suits. In one hand, they hold a drink and in the other, a cigarette or a cigar.
The bar patrons used to be allowed to smoke in other areas of the restaurant. But Maryland regulations signed by Gov. Parris Glendening in March 1995 prohibit smoking in most enclosed work places. Smoking is allowed in a restaurant only if it’s around the bar or in a separate, enclosed room that doesn’t take up more than 40 percent of the restaurant.
“We’ve totally been discriminated against,” said Jeff Moore, a Bethesda resident and a regular customer at Shelly’s. “But here I have a place where I can smoke as much as I want.”
Smoking is allowed in free-standing bars and taverns.
Because the regulations are relatively new, the exact economic impact on businesses has not been calculated, said Brendan Flanagan, director of government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
But, he said, “there are restaurants in every corner of the state [that] have lost business.”
Telling smokers they can’t smoke in a restaurant is like “telling them they can’t have a full dinner,” said Mary Jo McCulloch, executive director of the Maryland Tourism Council and Hotel/Motel Association.
A Mason-Dixon Political Media Research poll in March of 1,000 restaurant owners in Maryland indicated that 30 percent reported a loss in business due to the regulations; 60 percent said the regulations had no impact on their business, and 10 percent said business had increased. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percent.
Flanagan said restaurants without a liquor license suffer the most economic loss for complying with the regulations. They can close off a room for smoking, but that costs an average $100,000 to construct, he said. Or they can simply not allow smoking and usually lose a good portion of their customers, he said.
“If the restaurants don’t have a bar … the impact is drastic,” Flanagan said.
Maryland was the first state to enact such drastic smoking regulations, which are designed to control the effects of second- hand smoke, said Karen Napolitano, spokeswoman for Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulations.
The law provides some leeway for restaurants because those establishments are more customer-oriented than other businesses, she said.
“The state has tried to work with them and give them breaks to make it easier to comply,” Napolitano said.
Restaurants were given six months to comply with the regulations before the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulations began inspecting for violations.
As of Sept. 20, 136 businesses had been inspected and 197 violations found. The violations ranged from not having a no- smoking sign in view to having smoking in areas other than the designated ones.
“All in all, the compliance has been very good,” Napolitano said.
A restaurant not in compliance first will be given a notice and no penalty. Further violations can result in up to a $7,000 fine.
Washington-area restaurants are reporting mixed responses.
Fritzbe’s restaurant on Rockville Pike in Rockville moved its smoking section from a number of tables surrounding the bar area to 12 stools at the bar and six tables nearby.
But its general manager, David Eskay, said the only comments he’s received from customers are those wondering why the restaurant’s smoking section had moved.
“People seem to be more happy that there’s no smoking section,” Eskay said. “The majority of my customers and the majority of customers at most restaurants are non-smokers.”
But if people entering the Bethesda Crab House are looking for a table where they can smoke and don’t find one, they leave and go to another restaurant, said owner Henry Vechery. There are only three tables in the bar area.
“It’s putting the restaurants out of business,” Vechery said. He added restaurant owners should determine whether smoking is allowed. -30-