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Votes

County Bars Smoking in Restaurants

The restaurant industry is expected to challenge the law in the courts.

It’s all over but the litigating. On July 1, the county council passed legislation that it knew was destined for the courts.

But in an 8-1 vote (only Marilyn Praisner voted against it), council decided that compelling public health issues outweigh other factors, and banned smoking in all restaurants and bars.

“I respect the rights of the minority, but there is a question here about who’s rights are really being infringed upon,” said Councilmember George Leventhal (D-at large)

A similar law was passed in 1999, but the Maryland Court of Appeals stuck it down this spring.

While the law will protect restaurant patrons from second-hand smoke, it was primarily introduced as a measure to protect employees.

“The public health imperative outweighs the lost income,” Leventhal said

The restaurant community has been largely opposed to such a ban citing a potential loss of business when smokers flee to jurisdictions which allow patrons to light up.

Studies have shown that there is an initial drop-off in business, but that it typically comes back after two to three years.

Restaurateurs complain that in their volatile, low profit-margin industry, two years of lost customers could put many of them out of business.

The most heated debate came when Council member Steve Silverman (D-at large) offered an amendment to delay implementation of the ban for two years. The crowd of about 40, each holding a small sign with the words “No Delay” hissed as Silverman explained his fear of the impact on small businesses. “Everybody seems to acknowledge that there will be some impact,” Silverman said. “[Restaurants] are legitimately concerned about what is going to happen in the next three months.”

Those same people cheered and some danced a little in their seats when other Council members Tom Perez (D-5) explained their opposition. “Whose interests are being served by this amendment?” said Council Member Phil Andrews (D-3).

Perez made a point which many of the Council members had not considered. When the law was initially struck down in 1999, it was done so, by Judge Harrington.

Harrington is now Montgomery County’s administrative judge, which means it is she who decides which judge will hear which case.

“If Judge Harrington does in 21 months what she did last time, it will be struck down,” Perez said. “If we do nothing, we are already looking at a delay of 10-18 months.

It was this logic which swayed Potomac’s Council member, Howard Denis (R-1). “[Perez] came up with an argument I hadn’t heard before,” Denis said.

Denis’ position seemed to shift the entire tone of the meeting. “Any delay of effective date would not have the effect intended,” Denis said.

After the session, Denis explained why he voted for a bill that would impact restaurants, when he has roughly 250 of them in his district.

“I represent people. I don’t represent entities,” he said. “Let the chips fall where they may.”