Last month, the Eureka City Council quietly passed a wide-ranging new anti-smoking ordinance, prohibiting smoking more or less everywhere apart from your own home: No smoking within 100 feet of the Eureka Boardwalk; no smoking at farmers' markets, festivals or Arts Alive!; in fact, no smoking within 30 feet of any doorway, window, crack or vent to an enclosed space. Technically, you can't even throw a cigarette butt into a trash can within the new boundaries. The ordinance was discussed at several council hearings without fanfare or complaint. When Mayor Virginia Bass asked for public comment prior to the council's July 20 vote, two people simply raised their thumbs in support. The measure passed unanimously, and on Monday it officially went into effect.
It wasn't until last week, when Jay McCubbrey was going around to local businesses, passing out information on the ordinance, along with a few "How to Quit Smoking" pamphlets, that the backlash began. McCubbrey, a county health education specialist and director of Tobacco-Free Humboldt, had helped draft the ordinance, along with members of the American Cancer Society. From McCubbrey's perspective, there was nothing especially controversial about the guidelines. At least 33 other cities in the state have similarly comprehensive laws, he told the Journal Monday. Many local business owners and residents are grateful for the new restrictions.
Not bar owners, though. Bar owners, once they found out, were livid, as were many of their employees.
Take Lindsi Reel, bar manager at Ernie's, a tiny watering hole on A Street. Like several other taverns in town, Ernie's features an outdoor patio specifically for smokers, who make up at least half of Ernie's clientele, by Reel's estimate. When McCubbrey stopped by last week, she wanted to know when enough would be enough. Recalling the interaction from behind the elbow of the bar last week, Reel started to get worked up. Her audience -- five or six men in their 40s and 50s sipping beers at 3 p.m. on a Friday -- voiced their support as she launched into a tirade against McCubbrey, addressing him as if he were in the room. "And don't come in here with your ‘How to quit smoking' shit because nobody cares," she snarked.
Reel didn't find out about the ordinance until McCubbrey showed up. Sonny Smith, who's owned the S & K Card Room on Third and F for two decades, learned of it last Thursday from the Times-Standard. He regularly sits outside the door to his business, chain-smoking with fingers yellowed by tobacco. He figures the new law will kill his already struggling business. If people can't smoke on the sidewalk outside his place, as they do each Monday during the Texas Hold 'Em tournament, he figures they'll just go to the casinos. As for his own habit, "I'm gonna smoke," he said defiantly. "They can throw my ass in jail."
The stated intent of the measure is to protect the health of "non-tobacco users, especially children." Secondhand smoking, McCubbrey said, is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing as many as 73,000 nonsmokers per year (a statistic backed by the Centers for Disease Control). The ordinance, he said, was motivated partly by public health studies and partly by complaints from locals, especially residents of shared housing units who are subjected to smoke-filled common areas. But what to make of open-air bar patios, where adults who know the risks - as every American surely must by now - willingly subject themselves to clouds of carcinogens? It's the age-old question: Should our government be protecting people from themselves?
The people who run The Shanty, whose large, outdoor patio is Eureka's most popular public smoking spot, don't think so, and they're worried that the ordinance could put them out of business. "We're totally freaking out," Assistant Manager Stacie Nunes said last week. If they'd known the ordinance was under consideration, she said, they would certainly have made their voices heard. In an apparent effort to compensate, they've been virtually shouting their objections since late last week. Bartender Jon Fisher wrote up an angry petition urging residents to boycott and otherwise thwart the businesses and political ambitions of each city council member. On Monday, employees hung a large banner behind the bar suggesting patrons call the council members and/or Mayor Virginia Bass. ("Elections coming up," was scrawled threateningly in the corner.) On Monday, Shanty co-owner Rana Krueger described her reaction to the ordinance as "shock and disgust." In her 14 years at the bar she said she's never heard a single customer complain about the smoke. And furthermore, she said, "Our economic climate is so dismal right now I don't really think it's the time to enact incredibly restrictive ordinances in a city struggling for every dollar and every employee it can get."
Turns out the threats probably weren't necessary. At his Old Town record store The Works on Tuesday, City Councilmember Larry Glass said he'd heard grumblings about the ordinance when it was under consideration and thought it bizarre when nobody showed up to comment on it. Only later did he realize that the people who care aren't in the habit of reading council agendas. Unlike zoning changes or conditional use permits, there's no formal notification procedure for this type of action. "I see this as another gaping hole in public involvement," Glass said.
After discussing the situation with Nunes, Glass said he didn't see a problem with considering a variance for the Shanty and other Eureka bars with outdoor patios, provided employees, customers and neighbors aren't subjected to unwanted smoke. "If you're making a conscious decision to go into the smoking garden ... that isn't where we were targeting," Glass said. Councilmembers Linda Atkins and Jeff Leonard agreed, telling the Journal they'd be willing to consider exceptions to the regulations as long as no one's health is being jeopardized against his or her will. "We'll just have to go through the process of getting it on our agenda for an amendment and [another] public hearing," Atkins said. In the meantime, the ordinance stands as written.