Photo by Doyle Murphy
Bernie Anderson, owner of Bernie's Place, says the smoking ban is 'fanaticism.'
The city inspectors got Bernie's Place in June.
The bar, which stands out in bright blue and yellow among the drab brick warehouses and machine shops of the Near North Riverfront neighborhood, didn't have "No Smoking" signs posted, and an inspector spotted ashtrays, according to the city Health Department.
Owner Bernie Anderson says patrons were smoking outside and somebody carried the ashtray inside with them so as not to leave the butts out on the sidewalk.
"They weren't even smoking inside," Anderson tells the Riverfront Times
Either way, it seemed pretty lame to the 62-year-old proprietor and further proof that the city's spottily enforced prohibition on lighting up in bars is fatally flawed. (Unless, of course, you want to smoke at the casino or in the tony Missouri Athletic Club, which were both exempted by the ordinance. Smoke away there!)
"It's based on fanaticism and hypocrisy," Anderson says.
His place is one of just two bars cited since January, when a five-year exemption for small bars expired. The other, Tin Cup in south city's Carondelet neighborhood, was cited in July when an inspector dropped by late one night, owner Randall Prater says.
"It was closing time," Prater says. "People have got a few in them, and they forget. They start lighting up."
The Tin Cup caters to the 50-and-older crowd — people who decided long ago they like to sit at the bar and have a smoke with their beer, Prater says.
"I got people who stay home, because they can't smoke," he says. "It's killing my business. They're going to run out all the little corner bars."
Anderson and Prater can't help but feel singled out. Both say they know of bars that go unnoticed despite far more serious problems than smoking, although they decline to tattle as to whom. ("I'm not no snitching bar owner," Anderson says.) So far, city enforcement has relied on called-in complaints. In the past year, the Citizens Service Bureau has fielded 55 complaints about illicit smoking, according the health department.
"Each was investigated," according to a statement from the city. "Many complaints investigated find no evidence of violation." The number of citations is also low because inspectors dished out educational warnings from January to May, the city says.
Meanwhile, smoking continues at dozens of bars throughout St. Louis. It's as if nothing changed in some of the city's watering holes. Others make minimal attempts to hide the newly prohibited activity by stashing ash trays behind the bar or providing decapitated beer cans for the ashes.
Prater thinks the city should just license it and focus on bigger problems, like the heroin users he sees driving in from the county. He figures the ban is about the government taking more of bar owners' money anyway — might as well charge bars that want to stay smoky $500 a year for a smoking license and be done with it.
"They'd bring in some more revenue," he says. "Probably bring in another couple hundred grand a year that somebody could steal."
The exemption for casinos and the Missouri Athletic Club particularly irk the owners of the city's blue-collar taverns. Herb Krischke, owner of the Trophy Room at the edge of the Hill neighborhood, sued the city in December
under the premise his bar's license to operate Keno qualified it as a gaming facility, protected from the ban.
A judge granted a temporary restraining order
that briefly shielded the Trophy Room from enforcement, but Krischke lost the case in July. The formerly haze-filled Trophy Room has now been non-smoking for months. Krischke filed an appeal on August 5, but the other owners who hoped to follow his lead were disheartened.
"I was like, 'If he lost, ain't even no sense in pursuing it,'" Anderson says.
The ordinance still doesn't make any sense to him. If city leaders are really worried about the health of patrons and workers, why does Anderson still gag on smoke any time he decides to go to the casino? Was it really worth it have an inspector work late to investigate his bar?
"Either you're going to enforce the law or you aren't," he says. "And if you're not, you need to go around and pay damages to all the bars you've hurt."
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Photo by Doyle Murphy
Bernie's Place in St. Louis' Near North Riverfront neighborhood is one of two bars cited under the new smoking ordinance since January.