Come January, you won't be able to smoke at any business within the city of St. Louis — except at the private Missouri Athletic Club, and on the floors of the city's casino, Lumiere Place. And it's that "except" that has local bar owners, and their advocates, angry.
A host of bars were given exemptions five years ago when the city's smoking ban first went into effect. Now they question why their exemptions are coming to an end, even as smoking will still be allowed for two politically connected businesses. They also chafe at the fact that St. Louis County has long promised to phase out its exemptions, but appears unwilling to make it happen any time soon
"This was supposed to be a city/county thing," says Herb Krischke, owner of Trophy Room in south St. Louis, near the Hill. "I thought it was going to level the playing field. But when you can drive across the road and still smoke there, that's going to hurt my business." Of the exemption for the casinos and the athletic club, he adds, "I'm livid."
The exemptions exist for different reasons. The Missouri Athletic Club boasts as its members many of the city's wealthier citizens, including numerous attorneys. When they threatened litigation, the city carved out an exception.
And the casino exemption — which is written to include the existing city casino, Lumiere Place, as well as any future casinos to open within city limits — was apparently written because the city feared patrons would choose rivals in St. Charles County and St. Louis County instead. The law is written so that smoking will only be banned inside Lumiere Place if those two counties issue a full ban.
But despite the practical reasoning behind both exceptions, they still rankle the bars that will be affected.
"That to me is the most infuriating thing," Krischke says. "To give an exemption to just a few businesses? It's an indefensible position."
Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, deferred questions about the specifics to the city's health department, which did not return a call seeking comment. But Crane notes that many bars without exemptions have found themselves surprised by the impact of the ban. "If you talk to all the bars that did go non-smoking, my guess is that it would be positive," she says.
But that's not true of everyone.
Keep St. Louis Free, which fought the smoking ban before its passage, has been tracking the bars that requested exemptions back in 2011. The group's Tony Palazzolo reports that of the 53 bars that were denied exemptions and forced to go smoke-free, sixteen have closed — a total of 30 percent. The bars that were allowed to keep puffing have been much more likely to stay open. Of the 130 granted exemptions, only 15 percent have since closed.
Bill Hannegan, the gadfly who founded Keep St. Louis Free, thinks the time is ripe for a legal challenge to the arbitrariness of the exemptions. A similar challenge is pending at the appellate level over a smoking ban in St. Joseph, Missouri. If it's successful, it wouldn't directly impact what's happening in St. Louis, he says, but it could give new life to those who'd want to bring a challenge here.
Still, hiring an attorney would cost "tens of thousands of dollars," Hannegan says. He's not sure any of the affected bars would have it in them to fight back, though he'd love to hear from anyone willing to pitch in.
"That small group of bars is not the most prosperous," he says. "They're not the Missouri Athletic Club. They just sort of hang on."
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Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect number due to a math error. Thirty percent of bars that were denied exemptions have since closed, not 28 percent. We regret the error.