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Five months in, businesses still feeling effects of smoking ban

DETROIT LAKES -- It's been five months since the Freedom to Breathe Act was put into effect in Minnesota, and some area bars and clubs are still feeling the crunch in business the smoking ban has created.

The general consensus is that customers haven't been staying long, if they show up at all, and non-smokers haven't filled in the gaps created by smokers leaving.

"We haven't seen any increase in non-smokers coming in," said bartender Dawn Mattson at the Detroit Lakes American Legion.

Mattson said customers still don't like the idea of the smoking ban. The American Legion went through all the measures before the ban; it had a non-smoking area and installed air cleaners to ensure comfort for non-smokers, she said.

"I think they just feel it's a right that was just taken away from them. They understand it when there's food being served, but not in the liquor establishments," Mattson said. "Especially our veterans, because a lot of them, that's where they got started smoking is actually when they were serving, that was part of their rations, the cigarettes."

She hasn't heard about people in her group being thrilled about the smoking ban, especially since the legion had gone to all the measures to accommodate non-smokers before the ban was in place. Mostly, the worry now is about the future of the club.

"They're worried that business is down and they want to ensure that their club is always here to enjoy," she said.

"I just really wish the Legislature would have just maybe re-thought it a little bit and put some hours on the time when smoking was allowed or said you had to have certain air cleaners. Anything but just a complete ban on it," she said.

"We all work hard to keep our business, and that's really hard when we haven't seen an increase in non-smokers coming in here. I wish I could say that we've seen that, but we haven't."

Del Nelson, a bartender at VFW Post 1676 said they haven't seen an increase in non-smokers coming in. He said they've had to close on Sundays because no one has been coming in, and the lunch crowds and Bingo attendance are way down. Non-smokers just aren't picking up the slack from smokers not going to the bar.

"Here I am again, in the middle of the afternoon, when we used to have 10, 15 people, and I've got two now," he said.

Sandbar Sports Bar and Café bartender Stacey Cresswell said she hasn't noticed a lot fewer people since the smoking ban went into effect. The bar installed a heater in its outdoor smoking area for the winter weather and most people have gotten used to the ban.

"From what I've seen, it's calmed down a lot. People are just getting kind of used to it and there's nothing really you can do," she said.

Mary Thomssen sells pull-tabs at the Sandbar, and said business hasn't been bad. "Not worse than any other place," she said.

It's maybe a little bit slower than before the ban, but winter is usually slower. She also said she thinks people are watching their money with things like the increased cost of gas.

Audubon Municipal Liquor Store manager Pauli Larson said the smoking ban is hurting a lot of people.

"All of these people who went to the Legislature and said "Oh yes, if there were no smoking in bars, we'd go to bars"--no they won't. They're not showing up and yes, it is hurting business for everyone in this industry," Larson said.

Off-sale liquor is up, but Larson said she'd rather see the community back in the bar. They have been working on creating special activities to get people to come in.

They had karaoke last weekend, and have more events coming up in March, with extended St. Patrick's Day activities, a Mardi Gras night, and a possible wine-tasting event.

"I believe you have to get creative in planning special events at your establishment to draw the crowds in," she said.

That doesn't include creating a theatre night where patrons are called actors and allowed to smoke during the performance, because Larson said it isn't compatible with a municipal liquor store.

She had thought about looking into it, and has no problem with people who do it, but it doesn't fit for her business in Audubon.

"Finding this loophole and trying to find a way to beat the system is not what a municipal liquor store is all about. We are about the community, we are about what is best for the community, so therefore we will not be doing this," she said.

"It's like pushing the envelope, it's not actually illegal, but it's as close to it as you're going to get, but that's not what a municipal is about."

She said regular customers who are smokers have very little problem with going outside to smoke. They have signs for customers to put on their tables when they go outside for a smoking break so waitresses won't remove the drinks. There is room under the roof, next to the building, so smokers aren't completely exposed to snow or rain, but Larson said she would eventually like to look into creating a shelter outside.

And while Larson would like to see more non-smokers or other smokers back in the bar, just to say hello and get the community back in the bar enjoying themselves, she appreciates the support the municipal liquor store has gotten from the community.

"We really appreciate the support from the community. It has been fantastic. And any dollar they spend in here goes back to the community, so it's greatly appreciated."