Drinking and smoking in Grand Forks bars will be a thing of the past starting Aug. 15. Standing around in front of bars will be the new thing, but don't stand too close, or you might get in trouble with the law.
Smokers will have to be at least 15 feet from the entrance of a business, which, in the case of businesses located close together, could mean a very narrow smoking area.
So says the City Council, which voted narrowly Monday to extend the smoking ban in public places to bars, casinos and truck stops. Mayor Mike Brown, a doctor who's long favored a ban, had to break a 3-3 tie.
Bar owners, represented by their state trade group, the Coin and Tavern Association, said they fear they'll lose business.
But public health advocates with the Tobacco Free Coalition insist the city needs to protect bar workers and customers from the dangers of second hand smoke. And, they say, the more public places smoking is banned, the easier is their efforts to help those that want to quit.
That's good, said Haley Thorson, who chairs the coalition, because there's also plenty of money available from the settlement with the tobacco industry to pay for tobacco cessation programs.
It was the coalition that commissioned a survey that found 75 percent of Grand Forks adults favored banning smoking in bars and 83 percent feel the same about truck stops; the margin of error was 3.7 percent.
The numbers were critical to convincing the council to act.
The extended ban is modified by several amendments. The word of the hour, it seemed, was "butt hut," a shelter for smokers when it gets real cold. No alcohol or food can be served or consumed there. Bars also would be allowed a patio where alcohol maybe served, but not food.
Drawing the line
So, where exactly will a smoker be allowed to smoke at a bar after Aug. 15?
You can smoke outside on the sidewalk or the parking lot, as long as you're 15 feet away from the door.
Bar owner Josh Gilleland said, for his downtown bar, Gilly's, that would mean something like 80 people milling around on the sidewalk, possibly too far away from his bouncers' supervision.
The council didn't address that, though City Attorney Howard Swanson indicated that there may be laws against milling in the street.
Smokers also can smoke on the bar patio, but, again, they'll have to be 15 feet away. If the patio's too small, smoking won't be allowed.
Some council members had discussed banning drinking and alcohol service, but they were outvoted. Had they won, Grand Forks bars would've been at a greater competitive disadvantage compared with East Grand Forks bars where the smoking ban applies only to the inside of a bar.
Also, in East Grand Forks, smokers can sit right by the door. The law there is silent on that matter, unlike the Grand Forks law.
Smokers can smoke in the "butt hut," but if they have a bottle of beer or a sandwich, they can't consume either one. The shelter, which any business can have, not just bars, must be no more than 50 percent enclosed.
Council member Terry Bjerke, who opposes any ban, pointed out a peculiarity in the law: If his employer had a shelter and he wanted to smoke and eat his lunch in it, he'd be breaking the law.
"Nothing but smoking in butt huts," confirmed Council Vice President Eliot Glassheim, who pushed for that particular amendment.
How this will affect bars is anyone's guess.
Smoking ban supporters have long argued that business actually will get better because nonsmokers that stayed away from bars would return.
But bar owners think business will go down hill.
Dwight Wrangham, a representative from the Coin and Tavern Association, said in Fargo in 2009, the year after the smoking ban passed, revenues in 12 bars that he knows had previously allowed smoking dropped 5.3 percent. In West Fargo, seven bars saw revenues drop 11 percent.
One ban supporter noted that the economy also took a dive about that time, as well, so the ban might not be to blame.
Gilleland had earlier said that the bar business would probably get back to normal after an adjustment period. The problem is that adjustment period could mean the difference between being in business and being out, he said.
Jon Bonzer, who owns Bonzer's downtown, agrees. Studies he's seen indicate a year-long adjustment, he said.
"It's a crap shoot," he said. He tried voluntarily banning smoking once and saw business plummet by 75 percent, he said. But it seems like far fewer of his customers smoke these days, he said, so maybe it won't be so bad.
The same survey commissioned by the coalition also found that 15 percent of Grand Forks adults are smokers as of late last year compared with 19 percent in 2005. That's a fifth of all smokers giving up the habit.