NYC's smoky night life moves to the sidewalks
NEW YORK - The night life for which this city is so famous is undergoing a metamorphosis as bar patrons who smoke are spending time on the sidewalks rather than spending money inside ever since a citywide workplace smoking ban took effect on March 30.
''It's creating a social scene in the streets. The streets are becoming the new bar,'' said David Rabin, co-owner of Lotus, a supper club in the Meatpacking district. ''That's not good for the neighbors trying to sleep, and it's terrible for business.''
With New York ready to impose an even tougher statewide ban on public indoor smoking in July and Boston implementing a similar one next week, smokers on the sidewalks of Manhattan have a lot to say about a law many are calling Draconian.
Beginning next Monday, it will be illegal to smoke in Boston workplaces, including most of the city's bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Smoking will be permitted outdoors and in businesses that generate more than 60 percent of their sales from tobacco.
''It's terrible. It's anti-American,'' said Frank Wynne, 35, as he stamped away the evening's chill in front of a bar in Midtown while taking long, deep drags of his cigarette.
''It creates a subculture outside,'' said 28-year-old Jeff Farley, who stood nearby lighting up with a group of co-workers.
All over the city, smokers, bartenders, business owners, and nonsmokers alike say socializing in New York has been challenging since the law banned smoking in nearly all public indoor places, including bowling alleys and bars.
''I am concerned about noise,'' Bronx resident Mary Alm, 33, said yesterday morning as she sat in a Manhattan coffeehouse. ''But it's great. I don't want to breathe in other people's smoke.''
''It's been frustrating. You have all these people on the sidewalks, and you don't know if people are coming back or will stiff you,'' said Jason Smith, a bartender at McCoy's bar in Hell's Kitchen. ''It's a problem with the people in the building, with people walking down the street dodging these clumps of people. Even I would rather sit on my fire escape and drink a beer.''
Business owners say that so many patrons are leaving early - or not visiting at all - that business is down 20 percent.
Rabin, who is also president of the New York Nightlife Association, a tavern and restaurant lobbying group, said it is too early to know the full economic impact of the law since city officials said they will not fine establishments until May. Still, he said, there has been a rise in noise complaints, and he predicts more rowdiness in the streets.
But already the ban has created tension between bar workers and patrons, tensions that reached a peak on April 12 when a bouncer at an East Village club was stabbed to death by a man who was angry after being told to put out his cigarette. And Jim Dugan, a 31-year-old patron in McCoy's and Boston native, said he's watched patrons take their alcoholic drinks outside with them.
A number of politicians running for mayor in 2005 have already spoken against the law and angry business owners are planning to strike back at the state. Starting on May 15, many are planning to shut down their Quick Draw lottery game for a week to protest the ban; also, patrons and bar owners alike are passing out petitions over martinis and merlots that ask for separate smoking areas.
''We are not playing games with the state. They have taken our rights one after another, but we are going to go out of business with this one,'' said Brenda Perks, owner of Mel's Place in Falconer, N.Y., near Buffalo. She is a founder of Operation New York Freedom, which seeks to have the ban changed.
The new law, which was swiftly passed by the Legislature, received international attention because of the bouncer's death and because it goes against the city's image as a hot bar town as portrayed on shows such as HBO's ''Sex and the City.'' But other states like Illinois, Indiana, and Maryland, all of which are considering similar laws, are paying close attention to New York. California and Delaware have already implemented strict statewide smoking bans.
Boston officials said they are also measuring the reaction of New Yorkers and will continue communications with New York health and city leaders after Boston's law goes into effect.
''We have communicated with each other during public hearings and tried to learn from each other's experiences,'' said John Auerbach, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission.
The commission sent a staff member to New York establishments to study how businesses were dealing with the law.
''What we found is that it's going incredibly smooth for the size of the city and scope of the regulation,'' said Auerbach.
Unlike the Boston law, the New York City ban allows businesses to offer separate ventilated smoking rooms until 2006 and allows smoking in bars that are family owned, but the state law in July eliminates all those exemptions, angering some bar owners who spent thousands of dollars to build smoking rooms.
In the Oak bar, a swank cigar bar in the Plaza Hotel, the smell of cigars and cigarettes wafts through the dark-paneled room. Packed in the bar is a mix of young and older clients, many of whom the regulars like Oscar Casas, 50, haven't seen before. The bar is one of the few businesses in the city exempted from the ban for six months until it can apply for a permanent exemption because it is a cigar bar.
''Since the smoking ban, we are seeing a 15 percent increase in the level of business,'' said Gary Schweikert, managing director of the Plaza. ''We still see the same regulars of the Oak bar ... but we are also seeing new faces, and our servers are telling us that people are saying they are coming because they can relax and have a cigar.''
State and city officials from New York, where 23 percent of the adult population smokes (compared with 18 percent in Boston), contend that the bans are to prevent workers from breathing secondhand smoke.
Many bar and restaurant owners, as well as patrons who light up, agree that the public shouldn't have to breathe cigarette smoke, but they also said patrons and employees should have a choice of whether to work or visit a bar that allows smoking.
''We are not radical people, just business owners who feel we shouldn't have someone walk into our businesses and say you can't do that,'' said Joe Pintagro, a restaurant owner near Buffalo. ''It's not a smoking issue. This is a freedom of the right to run our business within the law.''
Charles Johnson, a 48-year-old audio-visual technician in Manhattan, said he hasn't visited a bar since the law went into effect.
''I think it stinks,'' he said walking along the Central Park West area puffing a cigarette. ''I understand everybody's right not to have smoke in their face, but this is bordering on fascism and it impinges on your social life quite a bit.''
Just as many nonsmokers seem to agree, but there are also smokers like 29-year-old Arsalan Ali who disagrees. Standing outside the Son Cubano, a restaurant and bar in the Meatpacking district, Ali said the new law will be good for the city and for his lungs.
''I'm glad they did it now so people will have time to adjust. Some people will quit. Others will get used to it. It's helped me cut back,'' he said taking his last puff before joining his nonsmoking friends inside the establishment.