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State may ease smoking restrictions at boro bars

Just over two months after New York City’s workplace smoking ban took effect, the Legislature and Gov. George Pataki are considering softening the state’s stricter version of the ban, set to begin July 24, in response to pressure from bar and restaurant owners.

Two bills, one in the Assembly and one in the state Senate, would amend the state ban to allow smoking in owner-operated bars and let business owners build specially ventilated smoking rooms — two provisions in the city’s law that would be superseded by the new state law as it is now written.

Both Legislature bills under consideration would also allow smoking in up to 25 percent of a bar’s or restaurant’s outdoor area, instead of extending that provision to restaurants only as the law now provides.

State Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) has signed on to legislation by Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn) that would also provide tax credits to business owners that build special smoking rooms.

“Like other legislators from all over the state, I've heard from individuals that find the new smoking regulations to be too restrictive,” said Padavan through a spokesman.

“While I supported the new regulations and still think they have merit, this additional legislation is an attempt to be responsive to the needs of small-business owners,” he said.

Pataki said last month that he would consider allowing changes to the state law. The last day of this legislative session is June 19.

Scott Wexler, executive director of the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, said even though the changes would be an improvement, the smoking bans were still unpopular with restaurant and bar owners.

“Our members won’t be jumping up and down and screaming ‘hallelujah’ if these amendments are passed,” Wexler said.

A federal judge in Nassau County responded last week to a lawsuit filed by business owners there by issuing an injunction that stops Nassau’s local ban, which took effect March 1, from being enforced on the grounds that it is “unconstitutionally vague,” Wexler said.

Wexler said the judge was likely to find the law had done irreparable harm to Nassau bars and restaurants, which had lost business to Suffolk County. Suffolk’s ban does not take effect until 2006.

“Since March 1, there’s been this border issue,” Wexler said. “It’s a real competitive advantage.”

The border issue could potentially affect bars in northern and eastern Queens if Nassau’s ban is lifted, at least until the statewide ban goes into effect next month.

Jimmy Fitzgerald, co-owner of Monahan & Fitzgerald in Bayside, worried that his customers would hop over the border for dinner, drinks and a post-meal smoke if given the choice.

“I know that’s what I would do if I were going out to dinner,” said Fitzgerald, a former smoker. “I would go to Nassau County.”

Meanwhile, the city Health Department, in May, cited 56 establishments citywide for smoking ban violations, according to a list released by the department last week.

The only Queens establishment on the list was the Athens Cafe in Astoria. The cafe received four violations: one for failure to conspicuously post a “no smoking” sign, one for having an ashtray out, one for failure to inform a violator and one in which the “workplace smoking policy (was) inadequate, not posted or not provided,” according to the Health Department.

Peter Nicolaou, an employee at the cafe, said business was down 20 percent because of the city ban.

“It’s really bad for the business,” he said. “You can’t have your coffee without smoking.”

Fitzgerald also reported a 25 percent drop in business since the smoking ban took effect, especially among the older daytime customers who were “more set in their ways,” he said, and therefore less amenable to stepping outside for a cigarette.

Not all businesses were suffering as a result of the ban, though. Uncle Jack’s steak house on Bell Boulevard, a registered cigar bar, is exempt from smoking prohibitions.

William Degel, the restaurant’s owner, said customers flocking from other establishments had increased his business by 20 percent since the city ban took effect.

Uncle Jack’s is set to open a Manhattan location on 34th Street in October, and as a newly opened restaurant, smoking will not be allowed there, Degel said.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said.

“Steaks, cigars, cognacs, scotches — they go hand in hand.”

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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