For Restaurateurs, a Hazy Cloud Over the Future
Wednesday, February 11, 2009; Page B02
Politicians and public health advocates might have been dancing a jig yesterday at the news that Virginia, at long last, is poised to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. But for restaurant owner Pat Troy, who runs an eponymous Irish bar in Old Town Alexandria and is a self-proclaimed "friend of the smokin' man," the day felt more like a lament.
Under the bill that passed Virginia's Republican-controlled House of Delegates on Tuesday, Troy will have to construct new walls and doors if he wants to continue allowing smoking at his place, which will not only be expensive but also will divide the restaurant in half and cut nonsmokers off from the stage.
"You're put in the position that you have to stop the smoking," Troy said, Irish fiddle music playing over the loudspeakers as the lunch crowd finished up cheeseburgers and O'Flaherty's potato and leek soup. "It's either that or telling my smokers, 'We'll put you in a little vault.' Sure, it'd be crazy."
Indeed, after years of trying to get a smoking ban through the General Assembly, Tuesday's vote came as a shock to those, like Troy, who thought Virginia's rich tobacco history and legacy of rural control in state politics meant that they, unlike restaurant and bar owners in the District, Maryland and 22 other states where smoking is banned, would be safely enveloped in legal cigarette smoke for years to come.
The vote left some, like Ramzi Iskandar, owner of Tarbouch Mediterranean Grill in Arlington County, wondering whether they could survive.
For three years, Iskandar struggled to run a Lebanese food takeout restaurant. Last year, he brought in hookahs, and business has never been better. Day and night, the air in his place is thick with smoke from the hookahs smoked by his mainly Middle Eastern clientele. To them, he explained, smoking hookah after a meal is as natural as Italians having a glass of wine with their pasta. "If hookahs go away, there's no reason for me to operate, for sure. I've already decided on that," he said. "The reason people are eating here is because I have hookah."
The fight over the ban is far from over in Richmond. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) yesterday criticized the bill approved by the House, saying it violated and "weakened" the terms of the deal he worked out with House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford.) In addition to dropping the ventilation requirements for smoking sections, the House version exempts bars that do not serve minors and would allow smoking on outdoor patios. "We need to get the bill back to the deal," Kaine said.
But Howell said he's not sure a smoking ban can pass the House if the Senate strips the amendments from it.
Back at Pat Troy's Ireland's Own pub, Tony and Melinda Mooney, owners of Murphy's Irish Pub just up the street, finished lunch and bemoaned the smoking ban. Murphy's, especially at happy hour, is filled with smokers. Although neither smokes and Melinda says she's allergic to it, they don't like seeing their friends and customers demonized.
"To see a contingent of people being pushed out into the alley, being pushed out into the street, brands them," Tom Mooney said. "It says to them, 'You're not allowed.' "
Next to the Mooneys, Tony Musa, a federal sales representative for Glock, the pistol manufacturer, perused the menu, his pack of Marlboro Lights at the ready on the bar. He travels a lot, so he's used to smoking bans. If he can't smoke in a bar, restaurant or hotel, he smokes outside. If he can't smoke outside, he smokes in his car. It's a drag, he said, shrugging. "But I was a soldier for years. I'm used to discipline about what I can and can't do. So I suck it up and drive on."
Over at the smoke-filled Ireland's Four Courts in Arlington, manager Dave Cahill, lately of Limerick, said he, like Troy, was surprised that Virginia, of all places, was about to ban smoking. "But Ireland brought in the no-smoking law five years ago," he said. "If it could happen in Ireland, it could happen everywhere."
Besides, he said, maybe a ban would be good for business. "Maybe now," he said, "more families will come to the restaurant."
Staff writers Anita Kumar and Tim Craig in Richmond and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.