Monday, February 26, 2007

D.C. bar owners say business has fallen significantly since the city’s smoking ban was implemented almost two months ago.

In contrast, restaurants say they have fared relatively well — with little or no drop in sales. Their biggest complaint is the pile of cigarette butts lining their front sidewalks.

Bar owners say that smokers no longer leave the office for lunch and a smoke, and that late-night customers don’t stay out as long or they go out in Virginia, where they can smoke inside.

The lunch and afternoon business at Adams Mill Bar and Grill in Adams Morgan fell so significantly that owner Darrell Green eliminated lunch service. He used to open at 11 a.m. Now, the doors open at 4 p.m.

At Hawk ‘n’ Dove, a popular Capitol Hill bar and restaurant, the smoking ban has combined with the recent cold weather and tougher lobbying laws for the worst January and February in 40 years, said owner Stuart Long.

“It’s been a perfect storm,” he said.

Some bar owners say it might be too early to gauge the real impact. In addition to the smoking ban, unseasonable warmth in January followed by an unseasonably cold February skewed business up and down.

Mr. Long and other bar owners said they expect and hope business will improve at least a little during the summer, when customers might be more willing to step outside to smoke.

“If it doesn’t, you won’t be catching me at the end of this phone line,” Mr. Long said from his bar.

Joe Englert — who owns a number of D.C. nightspots, including Capitol Lounge on Capitol Hill, Lucky Bar and Big Hunt on Connecticut Avenue Northwest, and Rock n’ Roll Hotel on H Street Northeast — said business has fallen about 40 percent since the ban was enacted Jan. 2.

“There is no happy hour [business], and it’s very slow from Sunday to Thursday,” said Mr. Englert, who has been vocal against the ban since it was first discussed. “It’s down big time.”

But the co-founder of Smokefree DC, which strongly lobbied for the ban, is suspicious that bars have had such a precipitous drop, citing a 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that 20.4 percent of D.C. adults smoke.

“There is always a period of transition when these laws take effect,” said Angela Bradbery, co-founder of Smokefree DC. “It’s good for folks to see what the sales tax revenue and employment data show.”

Only two months into the ban, that information isn’t available yet.

Owners who say their establishments are unfairly hurt by the ban can apply for economic hardship waivers and allow smoking. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty plans to submit legislation to the D.C. Council allowing establishments that can prove business has fallen 15 percent since the ban to obtain the waiver, a spokeswoman said.

Establishments that operate more like a restaurant than a bar reported mixed results.

Claude Andersen, Clyde’s Restaurant Group operations manager, said it’s too soon to tell the real effect on the company’s six restaurants in the District, but said early results say there has been no big drop in restaurant business.

“At the bar, [the ban] affected it a little, but not to an extent that people are complaining out loud about it,” he said.

Some even like that the once-smoky bar has been opened to customers who, before the ban, wouldn’t want to sit there.

“It has enabled us to seat more lunch and dinner guests than we were before,” said Craig Butler, general manager of the McCormick & Schmick’s at Ninth and F streets Northwest.

“I don’t think there’s been a dip,” said David Troust, associate general manager at Mie N Yu in Georgetown.

Still, he asked, “Can we make Virginia do this now?”

D.C. owners say a smoking ban in all local jurisdictions would help ease the rush of smokers from D.C. nightspots to ones just over the Potomac River.

The commonwealth began moving in that direction earlier this week. The General Assembly passed a bill requiring restaurants that allow smoking to post signs saying so at their entrance.

Restaurants that post the sign won’t have to offer a nonsmoking section. House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, said the legislation would encourage restaurants to go smoke-free within a couple years.

In Maryland, legislation has been introduced in the House of Delegates and the Senate that would prohibit smoking in all indoor work buildings, including restaurants. A hearing on the House version is scheduled for March 7.

Total or partial bans already are in place in Prince George’s, Montgomery and Howard counties.

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