Dear Mayor Landrieu and City Council Members,
You're no doubt sick of hearing from me by now, nonetheless there are some things I want to tell you about.
Over the last few weeks I've talked with a lot of people: customers, workers, owners of bars in New Orleans downtown area. It hasn't been a regular beat reporter kind of thing, just talking. I see the lawsuit against the smoking ban has failed. The nola.com comment section is, of course, completely divided along the usual lines. There were also two other articles today about the fallout of the smoking ban, and interestingly they correlate with what I've been hearing. (I'll link to them and have more to say about them later.)
Full disclosure: I'm a smoker.
Second full disclosure: I didn't necessarily bring the topic up in the conversations I've had over the last couple weeks. In fact, the smoking ban and its impact often came into the conversation because of something else they'd said.
What I did notice that was disconcerting was a sense of fear in the conversations. Yes, really, fear. Many of the people who were talking to me knew I occasionally spout my mouth off online, others didn't but I told them I write publicly now and then. All, regardless of whether they were customers, workers or owners, asked me not to quote them by name, not to identify the bar, not to identify them. Many literally looked over their shoulders. It was damn strange. One said when I asked her why she was looking around like a cornered rabbit said, “You never know who's going to report you to whom. We're becoming a city of snitches.” I was fascinated by that comment but found as I went along that no one wanted to be identified. You'd think they were talking about a multiple kilo cocaine transaction, not a cigarette in a bar. Seriously, it was weird.
I figure I'll at least pass along what these folks, New Orleanians all, smokers and non-smokers, have told me.
One bartender told me he felt the ban was defacto discriminatory in that any business that has no possibility of having an outside area is necessarily behind the 8 ball. I mentioned this in some of my last letters to you. Places like Cosimo's, Buffa's, St. Roch or even the ever popular Tropical Isle locations have no outdoor options. I asked the bartender about benches or tables outside, I was told that that's illegal without a permit, which is rarely granted as sidewalks are a public right of way. I am not an expert on that, so I'll have to look it up, but he is right about the discrimination leveled against places without an outdoor patio area—business will probably migrate to places that have that option leaving some of the smaller neighborhood bars out of luck, and that doesn't seem quite fair. Another bartender happened upon our conversation and told us that when a smoking ban went through for restaurants, one restaurant north of the lake took almost the entire roof off the building so the place was a large covered patio with a very small “indoor” section. We all agreed that that wouldn't be possible in an historic district.
(I did notice a bench and a couple of ashtrays chained to a building next to a bar on a recent walk. I suppose that is a possibility, if permitted, for the tinier bars, but it doesn't remove the noise factor. In fact, next to another bar was a stoop with a hand lettered sign saying: “This is a residence. Do not sit.” Clearly the local residents are not crazy about the folks standing outside, and that will get worse I fear.)
A woman who is both a bar worker and a patron mentioned something I hadn't thought of. She works at a hotel bar, so no smoking allowed. She hangs out after work at a local dive that was popular with service industry workers and allowed smoking. She said she'd head there after her shift, which ended late at night, early morning, for a couple of drinks, a smoke and some gossip after work. She said she does it less often now. I expected her to say it was due to the smoking ban INSIDE. She said, no. It was because she felt she had to run a gauntlet of men who were smoking outside in order to get inside. I asked wouldn't those men have been in the bar anyway? She said yes, but there is a big difference between walking into a bar among seated men and having to walk through two lines of them as they part to allow her entrance. For her it was uncomfortable. After she mentioned it I asked a few other women in the same boat. They agreed but hadn't spoken about it for fear of judgment. Interesting on a lot of levels but I digress.
An owner asked me what his 110 lb female bartender is supposed to do if a guy his size, about 6'3” 225 lbs says no when she asks him to put it out or leave? He said he told her not to get in any arguments over it as she could get hurt. (In fact, in an article found today, this has already been a problem for one bartender in the Quarter. Please spare me the "smokers shouldn't have beaten him up" comments. OF COURSE NOT. It's not because they smoked that they were belligerent bullies, it's because they were belligerent bullies period.) He also fears the “snitch mentality,” a term I heard more than once. If someone has a beef against a bar, an ex-employer, a current employee or a customer, they can just call in a smoking ban complaint and cause problems for that owner. I asked if he thought that was improbable. He laughed and said, no, it should be expected and specifically cited anonymous photos that from all reports can be uploaded to the 311 site. (I am not sure about this, but it's a pervasive belief among barworkers.) Another owner told me that some minor fights had erupted outside the bar that normally would have been stopped inside the bar with a simple, “Settle down or leave!” Now, he asked , am I supposed to have my bartenders police the outside to make sure that doesn't happen?
There are also fears of criminal violence like thefts, muggings and worse happening to the smokers congregated outside. Once again, before you commenters start blaming the smokers for smoking and thus being outside, please use your common sense. Of course we know that the guys who committed the crime shouldn't have committed the crime, should be caught, and should be taken to court. Of course. Please, take a step off your nicotine free high horse and commend the folks for NOT pitching a fit inside the bar, for GOING outside like YOU wanted them to, then understand that they didn't get robbed or beat up because they smoked, they got robbed because they were easy pickings. For the record, there are many non-smokers who stand outside with their smoking friends because otherwise they'd be in the bar alone. They too could have been robbed in this kind of incident as I'm pretty sure the gunman didn't ask if they were all smokers standing there. One bar owner said he worries about an incident like this causing harm to his customers, lawsuits for his bar, a trip to the liquor license board followed by neighbor complaints and the guy with the gun will still be out there casing street smokers.
As of yet, I haven't heard of a bartender losing his/her job due to lowered revenues. I have encountered two who are now looking for second jobs to make ends meet. Their tips are half what they used to be. One is contemplating getting a roommate to pay the rent that used to be affordable himself, while another says she's just barely paying her bills and is actively looking for that second job. Not a different job, an additional job. She says the regulars who stayed and tipped aren't coming in or staying as long when they do and the tips are showing it.
I heard the strip clubs are suffering as well. Regardless of your views on strip clubs, they are viable businesses. I spoke with two people in the last two weeks, one a dancer, one an administrator. The dancer said that another dancer had been fired for standing outside having a smoke. I asked if the dancer would have been able to smoke while working prior to the ban. Yes, she said. She would have done her set, then gone over to the bar for a drink and a smoke, then been available to work the floor. She was outside after her set. She's looking for a job now. The administrator said that business was way down in four clubs that he worked with. I asked if it was due to the summer slow season. No, came the answer. “Young guys want the girls, the booze, the cigars, the whole thing, like in the movies. They're not spending as much time or money. The bachelor party guys love all that. I figure they'll move their party to a private house or a cigar bar, order up a stripper from Craigslist and buy their booze at Walmart.”
As I said earlier, the comments at nola.com are the standard issue: SCREW YOU, you idiot smoker! SCREW YOU, you non-smoker! SCREW YOU, New Orleans, I'll go to Jefferson Parish. This last one shouldn't be completely ignored. While nearby parishes might think we're all going to hell here in New Orleans, they'll happily take our money straight into their cash registers, their poker machines, their pool tables, their jukeboxes and their pockets as tips. Of course this whole smoking ban thing might just be a huge attempt to increase DUI bookings and fines. Naturally that was not meant seriously, but what will become serious at some point is that DUI will go up as people head off to bars and casinos unreachable by foot, bicycle or cab and instead hit the I-10 on their blurry way home.
Many smoking customers I talked to said they'd be willing to switch to e-cigs, not all, but a lot more than I expected. But alas, they've been banned. The “private club” idea was mentioned repeatedly, but alas, that's forbidden, which I find bizarre as the term “private club” means a customer necessarily knows what to expect before paying the membership fee. What I heard most from the owners, besides “please don't name my bar”, was the question of a referendum, an actual vote by the citizenry as opposed to an edict from above. When I asked if they'd be willing to pay yet another permit fee if a referendum allowing that was to pass, they were split. Many bar owners feel they already pay enough in fees and permits, others said they'd be willing to pay for a smoking permit if it would keep them in business.
What all of them said, the customers, workers and owners, was that they felt this had just been handled like a royal decree, and they resented that. The weird not quite fear I kept noticing was like they were waiting for a hammer to drop, a letter of marque yanking their hard earned liquor license, killing their businesses with them having no recourse. It's the no recourse that rankles. Is there really no kind of compromise possible?
As for me, I'll keep listening. Although maybe not for long as the noise issue will rear its head again and unfortunately be exacerbated by the sound of talking, zippos and clinking ice cubes outside someone's window.