By Jim Smith
HYANNIS, Mass. — Recently enacted smoking bans are wreaking havoc with bars on Cape Cod, according to a survey done last week by the Irish Echo. Business is off by more than 50 percent in some eating and drinking establishments, and some owners are privately saying that they may go out of business later this year.
Smoking bans took effect in Barnstable and Yarmouth in early April of this year, and a similar ban was enacted in Harwich in July. Although bar patrons are breathing cleaner air, many of the bars are nearly empty.
"It’s killing everything around here," said a bartender at the Irish Village in West Yarmouth. "Even in the dining area people aren’t sticking around for the entertainment like they used to. They’ll head off to their rooms and smoke out on the balconies."
Bar owners and restaurateurs had hoped that a busy tourist season would offset the losses experienced in the spring when, once the mid-Cape bans were enacted, many year-round, local customers stopped going into the bars.
Jack Connell, owner of the Claddagh Inn and Tavern in Harwich, said that European tourists in particular were very upset with the smoking ban. "I’ve had tourists come up to me and tell me they’re never coming back to the Cape," he said. "These people are on vacation and are here to relax. They resent being told they can’t have a cigarette."
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Connell said that his profits are about half of what they had been in recent years. "And we have Irish entertainers in here now playing to only a handful of people," he said. "All it takes is for one of the people in a group to go outside for a smoke and the others end up leaving too."
At Molly’s Pub and Restaurant in West Yarmouth, along busy route 28, the restaurant continues to do well but the bar business has been devastated. In prior years, scores of young Irish would converge on this spot for drinking, socializing and dart games. On two evenings last week, less than a half dozen customers were seen inside.
"People are grabbing a six-pack and going home instead of out to the bars," said Frank Fitzpatrick, manager of Molly’s. "Someone said it started a long time ago with the advent of television, and more and more people are staying home these days. The smoking ban is just another reason for people to stay out of the bars."
At a gift shop on Main Street in Hyannis, 24-year-old Bridgett, a native of Donegal, living in Hyannis for the summer, said that there are plenty of young Irish people on Cape Cod this summer as in years past.
"There are tons of Irish over here, but the bars are a turn-off," she said. "There’s hardly anyone in them, and there’s no craic."
Bridgett, who declined to give her last name, said that she learned of the smoking ban when she took out a cigarette in a bar a couple of weeks ago and was quickly cautioned about lighting up.
"I don’t smoke that much, but when I have a drink I occasionally have one," she said. "Some of my friends do like to smoke quite a bit and they’re not comfortable in the bars around here. We usually go to someone’s cottage to relax and socialize."
Patrons caught smoking in Hyannis bars can be fined $50 for each offense under the new regulations, while bar owners can be fined up to $100 for each violation.
Tom Murphy, president of the Yarmouth Restaurant Association, said that his group fought the ban for about five years. "We were up against the elitists and all the money that the tobacco-control outfit has," he said. "I’m afraid that some of the neighborhood bars may be going out of business later this year."
Although most bar managers and owners interviewed by the Echo last week expressed weary resignation about the smoking prohibition, Peter Feeney, of the Windjammer Lounge in Hyannis, is cautiously optimistic that his civil suit will turn the bleak situation around.
Feeney’s lawyer, Edward Kirk, has filed a 50-page brief with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in which he claims that the Barnstable Board of Health ‘lacked the authority to enact such a prohibition.
Kirk and Feeney argue that the Massachusetts legislature has already enacted statewide standards relating to non-smoking areas in eating and drinking establishments. By banning smoking outright, they argue, the Board of Health has exceeded its authority and is in direct conflict with existing law.
If successful, Kirk’s challenge will have broad implications on Cape Cod and throughout Massachusetts. About 120 cities and towns in the state have some form of smoking ban.
Feeney, whose father is from County Sligo, said that his downstairs bar has always been a popular after-work spot for men and women who like to play a little pool and relax with a smoke and beverage.
"Now it’s nearly empty a lot of the time," he said. "Those three people on the health board who came up with this ban had no clue about how businesses would be hurt. They’re obviously out of touch with the realities of the business world."
The Supreme Judicial Court is expected to take up the issue in the fall.