Restaurants prepare for new smoking law

Loyal customers of The Forest, a neighborhood bar and restaurant in South Richmond, like to stop in for a prime-rib sandwich and a new smoking lawbeer, and often a smoke or two.

At lunch one recent Friday, nearly every customer at the bar or in the dining booths was puffing a cigarette. “We have always been very smoker-friendly,” co-owner Rob Schneck said.

He plans to remain smoker-friendly, even when a state law that takes effect Tuesday puts new restrictions on smoking in restaurants.

The Forest is one restaurant that is making use of some exceptions in the law. Schneck is turning the restaurant’s patio into a nonsmoking area with about 20 seats.

The new law is seen as a major shift for a state with close economic and historic ties to the tobacco industry.

State officials and public-health advocates predict that the law will prompt many more Virginia restaurants to go entirely smoke-free, as they have done in other states.

But public-health advocates also raise concerns about the law’s exemptions and whether the enforcement provisions are strong enough.

The exemptions are needed, Schneck said, because so many of his regular customers smoke. This way, he will continue to allow smoking at The Forest’s existing indoor bar and dining booths.

He is putting up new walls and windows around the patio and plans to install a fireplace.

“We are doing a whole remodeling of the patio in the hopes that it will make our nonsmoking clientele more comfortable,” said Schneck, who has co-owned the restaurant on Forest Hill Avenue with his mother, Joyce, for 16 years.

Still, he considers the smoking restrictions a costly government intrusion into his business. “This is the worst economic time for this,” he said. “It will cost a lot of restaurants in sales, or by having to remodel.”

. . .

The law, passed by the General Assembly this year, was a compromise measure between Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, and the Republican leadership in the House of Delegates.

The compromise came after numerous attempts by tobacco-control supporters to pass a complete ban on restaurant and workplace smoking during earlier legislative sessions.

Those bills usually passed the state Senate but were defeated in a six-member House subcommittee.

The compromise law prohibits smoking in restaurants, but legislators carved out exceptions allowing smoking in non-enclosed outdoor areas.

Restaurants also may permit smoking in indoor areas that are structurally separate — and separately vented — so that secondhand smoke does not circulate into nonsmoking areas.

Outdoor food carts and private clubs such as fraternal organizations also are exempt.

Many public-health advocates had hoped that state lawmakers would pass stricter rules against public smoking. Still, the law’s passage was widely hailed as a historic step for a state with close ties to the tobacco industry.

Altria Group Inc., the Henrico County-based parent company of Philip Morris USA, said the company had no comment on the new smoking law.

. . .

Public-health advocates, while supporting the law, remain dissatisfied with the exemptions.

“We do have concerns about restaurants building smoking rooms,” said Cathleen Smith Grzesiek, director of government relations for the American Heart Association of Virginia. “They do continue to expose workers and customers to secondhand smoke.”

Health advocates also have raised concerns about enforcement.

The health department will make sure restaurants are in compliance as part of inspections, but health officials cannot revoke or withhold a restaurant’s health permit for failure to comply. Local law-enforcement agencies will issue a summons for violations.

The law imposes a $25 civil penalty on people who smoke in nonsmoking areas after a warning. Restaurant proprietors who refuse or fail to enforce the restrictions also face $25 civil fines for each violation.

“A $25 fine may not be enough of a deterrent, so that is a concern,” Grzesiek said. “There is also concern that the health department has no sanction authority.”

But she believes most restaurants will comply willingly and without any issues.

State Health Commissioner Karen Remley said the health department will work closely with law-enforcement agencies to ensure compliance. She said the state agency also plans to post the names of noncompliant restaurants on its Web site for the public to see.

Once the law goes into effect, Remley said, she expects a positive impact on public health.

“We do know that when we ban smoking in restaurants, the number of heart attacks goes down in a community,” Remley said. “For people who have asthma, their incidence of attacks and visits to emergency departments goes down. So I think we are getting ready for a healthier Virginia this winter.”

. . .

Even with the exceptions, the law gives restaurant owners another incentive to go entirely smoke-free, health advocates say.

More than 70 percent of Virginia’s full-service and fast-food restaurants already are completely nonsmoking.

“I think many restaurants in Virginia were looking for a reason to go smoke-free,” Grezsiek said.

State health officials and tobacco-control advocates expect the number to grow, especially as more restaurants go the same route as the Red Door, a downtown Richmond eatery that has allowed smoking for years at several booths in its one-room dining area.

But as of Tuesday, the whole restaurant will be smoke-free.

Its husband-and-wife owners, Joe and Sheila Folley, temporarily closed last week for a major cleanup, hoping to eliminate the residue left by decades of cigarette smoke. Among the improvements: replacing the carpet and scrubbing the walls and floors.

“We have owned the restaurant since 1991, but it has been here since 1979, and it has always had smoking,” Sheila Folley said. “It is just full of smoke.”

But like many other restaurateurs, she was torn between satisfying the nonsmokers and smokers.

The law, she said, “takes me out of the equation.”

“Hopefully the folks that have stopped coming here because of the smoking will be able to come back in and enjoy the Red Door without the effects of the smoke,” she said.

. . .

State officials say it is hard to predict how many restaurants are making changes necessary to continue to permit smoking.

Gary Hagy, director of the department’s division of food and environment services, said he has taken hundreds of questions during the last few months about the law.

“This has generated more interest . . . than anything we have done since I have been here,” said Hagy, who has worked for the Department of Health for 30 years.

Hagy thinks most restaurants will comply, but he has heard some creative attempts to get around it. One restaurant owner, for example, suggested that she might make a phone booth in her place the nonsmoking area.

“I told her that was not going to fly,” he said.

The law requires at least one public entrance from outside the restaurant into the nonsmoking area. The one exception is if the only public entrance as of Tuesday is through an outdoor smoking area such as a patio.

But because the law sets no minimum requirement for nonsmoking seating, it does create the potential for some unusually small nonsmoking areas, Hagy said.

Some restaurants also have asked about becoming private clubs, which are exempt.

Hagy said he is not sure how many restaurants are pursuing that option, but it seems impractical for most. To meet the requirements of a private club, a restaurant would need to have a board of directors or an executive committee that oversees the functions of the club and is elected at an annual membership meeting.

. . .

Other restaurants are going with the outdoor smoking option.

Matt Simmons, director of operations for Capital Ale House, said all four of its restaurants in Virginia will become nonsmoking, except for outdoor patio areas.

“Most of our customers will appreciate a smoke-free environment,” Simmons said.

He disagrees with the exceptions in the law, because many restaurants don’t have the option of creating separate smoking and nonsmoking areas.

Some restaurants have the advantage of a building and floor layout that was already in compliance with the law.

One example is The Beach House Bar & Grille in the Innsbrook Shoppes in Henrico County. Even before the law passed, it had a separate nonsmoking room with its own entrance, bar and restrooms.

Co-owner Chris Stewart said he plans to continue to allow smoking in the rest of the restaurant, though he hopes that customer demand will eventually shift toward an entirely smoke-free environment.

“But that is not the reality we are dealing with now,” he said. “We do have a large number of nonsmoking customers that patronize our establishment once a week or once a month, but we have a larger number of smoking customers who patronize it two or three times a week.”

The White Dog, a restaurant in Richmond’s Fan District, also is going entirely smoke-free on Tuesday.

Owner Barry Pruitt is opening the restaurant to the smoking public tomorrow evening — it is normally closed that day — for a “last gasp” night of cigarettes and cigars.

“We’re going to have dinner and smoke the whole time,” said Pruitt, who changed his policy to allow smoking only after 10 p.m. about a year ago because “the market demanded it.”

November 29, 2009

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