Last weekend I spent the weekend in Polk County, WI and had the opportunity to sample the bar food cuisine in three different bars in three different towns over the course of an evening. While my original intent was to talk about the food, being that is what I generally do, I came across a much more interesting story: one bar owner’s fight against what she feels is a law which is the ultimate intrusion into her choice as a business owner–the right to allow smoking in her own establishment.
A statewide ban on smoking went into effect in all of Wisconsin on July 5th, 2010 and according to this article while the vast majority of establishments have complied with the law, there have been complaints filed against a few for alleged violations of the smoking ban.
From the article:
“I’m critically affected by smoke,” said Tyler, who has asthma. “I could immediately start feeling it in my eyes and my head.”
What the Greenfield woman didn’t know was that enforcement of the ban would turn out to be even hazier than the smoke wafting through the bar that night.
Tyler’s unsuccessful attempts to complain about the smoking violations highlight how the law is being enforced differently not only from one community to another, but even from one Milwaukee city agency to another.
After living in a state where smoking has been banned for more than three years, as we walked into the Harvest Moon Saloon in Centuria, WI (Facebook page) just before 6:30 PM on Saturday night it was hard not to notice the reappearance of something which has not been a part of the Minnesota bar scene for what seems like forever. One of my friends said he believed there was a smoking ban in Wisconsin but wondered if this particular establishment was somehow exempt. A quick Google search found that no exemptions existed for a bar of this type and thus they were clearly in violation of the law. The owner, Mary Jo, eventually came over to talk to us and we asked about the patrons smoking and if she was somehow exempt from the law and she stated, in her quiet and confident voice, that Wisconsin has indeed banned smoking but she does not abide by the law.
The bar charges those who smoke $1 which goes then is placed into a “kitty” to be used to pay any future citations for their defiance of the law. Many of the usual arguments were raised by the owner including loss of business and the simple fact that she does not believe that it’s the government’s business if she chooses to allow smoking in her bar. If the market demanded a smoke-free bar, one man sitting at the bar mentioned later, they would pop up all over the place yet it took state laws to move for a ban to make those a reality.
There were two bars in desolate Centuria, WI, a city ravaged by high unemployment and discontent over the fact that some unnamed source claimed the county was holding more jobs than the private sector. A recent StarTribune article notes Polk County will lose many more jobs after Polaris leaves the county to ship its jobs off to Mexico. Harvest Moon’s owner said due to the high unemployment it’s hard for her to keep her doors open and the smoking ban would just make it that much harder. She hasn’t been able to increase the cost of her unbelievably inexpensive $1 drafts because people wouldn’t come out and would probably just stay at home. As it is they’re spending less time out and less money when they do. While there was definitely no shortage of very intoxicated individuals at Harvest Moon during our visit, I cannot say it was any more crowded than the bar right next door where people were huddled outside smoking legally. It was almost as if the bar’s owner was the one more interested in smoking inside and potential customers were only doing it because it was “permitted”.
But even with this strong defiance for the law doesn’t mean that Harvest Moon hasn’t received a warning. One patron, who the owner claims was retaliating against her for not serving his ID-less girlfriend, reported the bar to the police for the smoking but no fine was ever levied. When I asked why she cared about the possibility of serving an underage woman but not the smoking the owner replied, “oh! They could take away my license if I served a minor.”
What do you think about Harvest Moon Saloon’s choice to allow patrons to smoke while charging the a small fee to cover any future legal costs? Do you think that it should be up to the owner of an establishment to make the decision regarding smoking or not? If you walked into a bar and found the patrons openly smoking in front of the owner with their consent would you report them? Whatever you have to say about this one go ahead and comment on as I’d love to hear your thoughts.