By Stephen McKinley
Irish pub and restaurant owners gathered last Wednesday at City Hall to protest the proposed anti-smoking bill that received its first hearing in the City Council on the same day.
But as publicans protested, it emerged that what they thought was a planned out-and-out ban on smoking wherever food is served is something of a mixed bag of regulations.
Percentages are the key to understanding the new bill — it proposes that square footage of bars and restaurants will be measured in order to calculate whether or not at least 60 percent of business is in liquor sales and no more than 40 percent is sales of food.
“The purpose of the 60/40 split is to distinguish a bar from a restaurant,” said Des O’Brien of Langan’s bar on 47th Street, adding that many Irish establishments in New York are restaurant-bars. The percentage idea is an oddly familiar formula from City Council that has also been used in recent years to allow some sex shops to continue trading, providing that no more than 40 percent of merchandise is of adult content.
Regardless of percentages, restaurant and bar owners at City Hall were still unhappy with the proposals. About 50 of New York’s leading publicans and restaurateurs posed for photographers and camera crew on the steps of City Hall in a show of solidarity against what they say would seriously harm their businesses.
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“This will kill business,” said Michael Columb from Annie Moore’s bar on Madison at East 43rd Street. “It should be up to the owners to regulate their premises.” Paddy Reilly, originally from County Cavan, is owner of Molly Wee’s. He said that the new law would be “very damaging.”
The measure would still affect restaurants such as Langan’s in midtown, where owner O’Brien said that his establishment would not make the 60/40 cut.
“It’s not going to benefit me,” said O’Brien. “And anyway, it’s only a matter of time before they go for a total ban.”
Once the press conference got under way, several speakers delivered short statements outlining their opposition to the bill, including Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the Greater New York Chapters of the New York State Restaurant Association.
“The 1995 legislation is working,” he said, and asked why it had to be changed, while Ciaran Staunton of O’Neill’s Bar and Restaurant said that the new law would “hurt family-owned small restaurants and immigrant communities.”
As the press conference came to an end, Tasha Duffy of The Emerald on Spring Street said, “I am a non-smoker myself, and if I want to stay away from smokey bars, I can choose to do that already.” Her colleague, Kathleen Reilly, asked, “Isn’t the point of this country all about personal freedoms?”
Among the crowd, one pub owner held an eloquent sign that read, “The tavern is the cradle of American Democracy,” with the “is” crossed out and replaced by “was.” As people left the City Hall grounds, a woman next to the N and R subway stop quietly urged passersby to stop smoking, but her voice was the only one in evidence to take the opposing view in this ongoing controversy.