Islanders smolder over smoking restrictions
Bar and restaurant owners speak against tighter rules at City Council hearing
February 24, 2000


                                                                                                          ADVANCE STAFF WRITER

Don't take our smokers! 

That was the message from Staten Island bar and restaurant owners as the city's anti-smoking laws --
which rumors say may be expanded to prohibit smoking in any bar or eatery -- were debated at a City Council hearing yesterday. 

"If there's no smoking, then I'm in trouble," said Larry Burkert, who owns the Talk of the Town tavern,
Great Kills, and was one of a busload of Staten Islanders traveling to City Hall to voice their opinions. 

"It would be very difficult to operate my business without smoking," Burkert added, noting his business has allowed lighting up since it opened in 1969. "We're happy with it just the way it is." 

"Obviously we think it's gonna hurt business," said John Mulvey, president of the Staten Island Restaurant and Tavern Association, and the owner of Mulvey's tavern on Forest Avenue, Port Richmond. 

"Government's getting too involved here," Mulvey said. "It's getting to the point where they're controlling everything." 

Among those in support of expanding the law is the American Cancer Society. Dr. Ann Merlino of Silver Lake, a 1999 Advance Woman of Achievement who chairs the executive committee of the organization's board on Staten Island, disputed the notion that greater restrictions would hurt business. The smoking law now on the books caused business owners no harm, she said. 

"The opposition's dire predictions of the impact of smoking limitations on the restaurant economy have proven to be totally groundless," she said in her testimony before the City Council's Health Committee. "Throughout the city, the restaurant business has been booming and no one has lost a job as a result of the legislation." 

There are no official plans or proposed laws at present calling for the city to expand current policy. In 1995, smoking was outlawed in indoor dining areas in restaurants that have 35 seats or more. 

But sources have said City Hall leadership is considering tightening the five-year law to outlaw smoking in small restaurants, and the Council, for the first time, may draw up a proposal making it illegal to smoke in nightclubs and non-eatery bars. 

Scott LoBaido, the controversial St. George artist who gained notoriety last year for chucking manure at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, brought a giant homemade cigarette to illustrate his ire at the rumored law change. 

"It's a right. It's a big right that's being swept underneath us," LoBaido said. If the law is changed, he added, "It'll be total chaos . . . it's totally ridiculous." 

LoBaido sought hundreds of protesters to come out with him, but had to settle for a dozen or so supporters on a sunny day outside City Hall. They held signs exclaiming, "What next, no salt?"; "Smokers are people too"; "That's my right, damn it"; and "No smoking in a bar? You've gone too far." 

LoBaido attempted to bring the mega-cigarette and then signs into the hearing, but was stopped by police. He said he lit up a cigarette after entering the hearing and was asked to put it out. 

Several bar owners -- but not all -- had less blatant statements of opposition to the rumored law change. 

Danny Blaine, who owns Danny Blaine's bar in Rosebank, came dressed as Uncle Sam. Blaine, a former fire lieutenant, said he "certainly understands" smoke concerns, but opposes any law change. 

"It's gonna definitely hurt [business]," said Gene Lynch, who owns the Rosebank Tavern, another bar and eatery in the neighborhood. 

"We feel [the current law] is working and the statistics show it's working," said Joe Territo, who owns Afternoone's restaurant on Forest Avenue, West Brighton. 

"I kind of resent being told how to run my business," said Ken Tirado, co-owner of Adobe Blues in New Brighton and Killmeyer's Old Bavaria Inn in Charleston. 

Councilman Jerome X. O'Donovan (D-North Shore) supported the business owners' stance. He said the current law is fine and should not be expanded. 

"I believe if they move further, it just might be too restrictive and it just might hurt business," he said. 

There was talk during 1995 that the previous law would bring "doom and gloom" to business, Councilman James Oddo (R-Mid-Island) noted, but that never happened. 

Oddo said he would support expanding the law to ban all smoking in restaurants, but not in bars. But he noted there is no such idea in the works yet. "I can't take a position on a make-believe bill," he said. 

Mario Rapaglia, owner of Bario's restaurant, New Springville, said the law should be expanded to include all restaurants. He said bars "should be left alone." 

Neal Cohen, the city health commissioner, testified during the hearing and said the current law is working well and that compliance continues to increase.