Protest organizers from the New York Nightlife Association said they chose Thursday, July 24, because it was the day that the statewide ban, stricter than the city law that passed in May, took effect.
“This issue isn’t about smokers versus nonsmokers,” David Rabin of NYNA, and a city nightclub owner, told the 1,000-strong crowd. “We’re asking our leaders for a reasonable law that cleans the air and saves jobs and businesses.”
NYNA has said that bar and restaurant business has fallen by as much as 20 percent overall since the law took effect in New York City. Speakers on Thursday also talked about the quality-of-life problems caused by smokers spilling out of bars late at night in large numbers in order to smoke: they wake residents with loud chat and leave the sidewalks covered in cigarette butts and sometimes create traffic problems by standing on the street itself.
And Irish bar owners across the city have said that business is down and bar staff have been laid off, during an economic downturn that has been made worse by the smoking ban.
But the issue is a hotly contested one, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and antismoking groups saying that the ban has been good for business and for the health of the entire city. Reality Check, a teen antismoking group, said that 85 percent of New Yorkers say they are going out to bars and restaurants more than ever, and that 65 percent of the city’s inhabitants support the law.
At the protest, bar owners and staff mingled with patrons, and voices, sometimes raspy, were raised in a chant of “can the ban.”
“I am just a regular person, and I happen to smoke,” said a woman who gave her name as Michelle. “But even if I didn’t, I would still protest the ban. Definitely, bars and restaurants have lost my business.”
Among the crowd were several Irish bartenders representing the Irish Hospitality Industry Alliance, which has estimated that the proposed Jan. 1, 2004 smoking ban in Ireland will cost their industry 68,000 jobs.
Said Brian Costello, a Cork city bartender: “We are worried about job losses and we are here on a fact-finding mission, to see how the ban in New York has affected business.”
The sometimes rowdy crowd cheered speakers such as Scott Wexler of the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association.
“We were told that 80 percent of New Yorkers don’t smoke,” Wexler said. “Well, if that’s the case, why has no one opened a smoke-free bar before?”
New York Post journalist Linda Stasi spoke as an ex-smoker and reminded protestors that many people were “so dead upset by this law.”
Another speaker attacked the ban as an unnecessary infringement of civil liberties.
“You should be allowed to decide what to do in your own home and your own business,” he said.
The protest, scheduled for 1 p.m., was hit by uncertainty after the shooting death of New York City Council member James Davis less than 24 hours before by political opponent Othniel Askew, who was himself shot dead by a city hall police officer.
But the protest went ahead on schedule, as did an earlier press conference in support of the ban, which was attended by about 100 people, many of them teenagers, who said that the smoking ban was an important improvement in New York’s public health.
But antismoking ban protestors asked what relevance the teenagers had, given that none were old enough to go to a bar and few were old enough to vote.
Signs were waved in support of each speaker. One read: “Start spreading the news — my customers are leaving today.”
New York City’s smoking ban came into effect amid some confusion on April 30 but was not enforced by inspectors until one month later.
At the time, bar owners on the city’s Bronx and Queens borders expressed concern that patrons would simply walk across the border into neighboring Nassau and Westchester Counties where they could still smoke in bars.
One such owner is Rory Dolan, with establishments in both the Bronx and Westchester.
Asked if business was down, Dolan’s response was an emphatic “yes, definitely.”
“When you lose customers, you don’t get them back,” Dolan said, acknowledging that the arrival of the statewide ban had once more leveled the playing field for bars on either side of the border.
But, Dolan continued as he stood near the platform of speakers, the city and state bans were predicated on saving the lives of bar staff from secondhand smoke. In his many years in the hospitality industry, he said, “I never heard of barmen and barmaids, waiters and waitresses, ever complaining about secondhand smoke.”
Tommy Finneran, who owns Flow, a SoHo bar with an upscale clientele, noted the plight of the regular bartender.
Recently, he said, a Kuwaiti prince entered the bar with singer Wyclef Jean. When the prince lit a cigarette, staff asked him to put it out. Instead, the prince left, taking his cigarette and his business and his generous tips with him.
“That cost us a lot of money, because that guy buys mucho bottles of Cristal,” Finneran told reporters. “We should have risked it. We were stupid to ask him to put it out.”