By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006; B04
At Annie's Paramount Steak House near Dupont Circle, the ashtrays are off the tables for good, even though District officials misinformed businesses about when the city's smoking ban would go into effect.
The D.C. Health Department sent letters to business owners last month and issued a news release last week that said the law would go into effect yesterday. But the smoking ban will really go into effect today.
"Each one of us called the mayor's office and got a different answer each time," said Leigh Hendricks, one of the managers at Annie's. Each manager also got a different definition of where smoking will still be allowed.
The provisions of the ban implemented today cover the dining areas of restaurants and most indoor workplaces. The ban provides exemptions for outdoor areas, hotel rooms, retail tobacco outlets and cigar bars. In 2007, it will expand to include bars, bar areas of restaurants and nightclubs and will provide an economic hardship waiver for businesses that demonstrate a "significant negative impact."
The D.C. Council approved the ban in January, and the confusion over the implementation date came about because city officials miscounted the number of days Congress had to review the legislation. Congress has 30 legislative days, when one or both houses are in session, to review acts passed by the District.
Health Department spokeswoman Leila Abrar acknowledged yesterday that the department was relying on an early projection by council staff to determine when the review period would end. Because of the ever-changing congressional calendar, the projection was moved back a day, but the Health Department did not adjust its announcements to the public.
Health officials took no action yesterday, after they were informed of the error.
"For the sake of not confusing the public, we are just going to stick to the 3rd," Abrar said. "One day doesn't make a difference."
She said that in any case, the department was not planning any major enforcement efforts the first day.
Ira Stohlman, D.C. Council secretary, said his office and legislative services project the date of enactment based on congressional schedules. But he said his office projected an April 4 enactment date "well more than a week ago."
Stohlman said his office is also careful to say that dates are projections, not hard dates. "Based on the count we have, the effective date of the law will be tomorrow," he said yesterday.
Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties ban smoking in most restaurants and bars.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) said the confusion is the result of Congress's meddling in the District's legislative process.
Congress should allow District laws to go into effect after they are approved by the D.C. Council and mayor, just as state laws do, she said. She also said she could not remember the last time Congress exercised its veto of city legislation during the review period.
"It's confusing," Cropp said. "Especially for those who don't constantly follow the process in the District."