The push to ban smoking in Baton Rouge's bars and casinos died and was resurrected within the course of a few minutes Wednesday night, but Capital City residents will have to wait until Aug. 9 before knowing whether smoking will be permanently snuffed out at those establishments.
Supporters of the proposed smoking ban ordinance initially appeared to have secured the necessary seven Metro Council votes to pass it, but questions about enforcing the ban and giving bars and casinos enough time to adjust to a new business model prevented the proposal from passing Wednesday. Metro Council members said they need more answers before they can vote on the issue again.
"I believe if the mayor is truly in support of this, she should make sure that by the time we meet (next), we have a resolution to the questions that were posed tonight," said Metro Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome sent a letter to council members telling them she supports the proposed ordinance, but she did not speak in favor of it at Wednesday’s public hearing.
Freiberg and Matt Watson, both Republicans, are key votes as their predecessors voted against a similar ban proposal that failed a year ago. While both said they agree with the concept, they were apprehensive about how the Baton Rouge Fire Department would enforce it, especially after Fire Chief Ed Smith said he has questions of his own.
A campaign to douse the cigarette smoke in Baton Rouge's bars and casinos reignited Wednesda…
Smoke Free East Baton Rouge supporters wearing blue T-shirts packed into the City Hall, trying to make their case with arguments about health, morality and government regulation. Raegan Carter, a spokeswoman for the group, said after the meeting that they were disappointed by the delay but they'll continue to push for a proposal they hail as a life-saving measure.
Lydia Kuykendal, the American Cancer Society's director of government relations for the state, compared allowing smoking in bars and casinos to allowing restaurant owners to serve rotten meat. She and several others pointed to the importance of government playing a role in public health, listing examples like asbestos, lead paint and other potential health hazards that are regulated.
Former casino cocktail waitress LeighAnna Kingvalsky said she knew when she took her job that second-hand smoke could cause health problems. But she said she needed money to pay for school and to pay her bills, so she worked at a job in which she was subjected to second-hand smoke for seven, sometimes up to 14 hours, at a stretch.
Remi DeMatteo, general manager of The Bulldog on Perkins Road, said he was worried about losing customers when his bar voluntarily went smoke free in 2015. Instead, The Bulldog saw a 17 percent revenue bump the year after it banned smoking.
"We, as bar owners, don't get to make public health decisions," he said. "If you want to know what a new brand of beer is, I'm your man."
Anthony Gallo remains philosophically opposed to a parish-wide smoking ban in bars and casinos.
Several L'Auberge Casino employees spoke in opposition to the ban proposal, with executives saying they flat-out opposed it but if the Metro Council were to pass it, they should give the casino time to adjust. Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis tried to challenge the casino representatives' insistence that they would lose revenue from the proposed ban, but Troy Stremming, Pinnacle Entertainment executive vice president of government relations & public affairs, said casino losses have happened in every state that has adopted similar smoke-free laws.
Trivia Weatherspoon, a L'Auberge employee, said L'Auberge's air filtration prevents the smoke from seeping through her clothes and affecting her quality of life.
"I've been at work since 6:46 this morning, and now I'm here, and you're more than welcome to come smell me," she said.
Stremming and L'Auberge General Manager Mickey Parenton said they might be able to minimize their losses by allowing gaming on patios, but they would need a change in state law in order to do so. They said L'Auberge stands to lose money until they could gain approval from state government for patio gaming and until they could build a facility to allow for it.
"Less people means less money for 70 percent of our team members," Parenton said about losing patrons and a resulting loss for employees who work on tips. "Let me be really clear: We will lose revenue. If you decide to pass this ordinance, please give me time to mitigate those losses."
Representatives from Baton Rouge's other two casinos — the Belle of Baton Rouge and Hollywood Casino — did not speak at the meeting.
Watson said he would be open to writing into the ordinance that it would be not enforced until the end of the 2018 Louisiana Legislative session. It's another detail he said he would like to see worked out by the Aug. 9 meeting. And he said the Metro Council needs to consider changing the enforcement agent to the city's Alcohol Beverage Control board.
Other Metro council members questioned why their colleagues were making the vote on the smoking ordinance more convoluted than it seemed on its face.
With the enforcement aspect, Councilwoman Tara Wicker asked Parenton how he would handle someone bringing an animal into the casino. When he said they would ask them to leave, Wicker said the casino could do the same with people who try to smoke.
"What amount of money is equal to the loss of human life?" asked Councilman LaMont Cole. He pointed out that casino executives work in offices that are smoke free, but their employees on the gaming floor are the ones subjected to the health risks. "You and other executives who are working in casinos have the right not to have to deal with second-hand smoke on a consistent basis."
The Metro Council would not initially agree to defer the vote on the smoking ordinance, but then a vote to approve the ordinance proposal failed. Voting to approve it as written were Collins-Lewis, Wicker, Cole, Chauna Banks and Erika Green. Voting against were Buddy Amoroso, Dwight Hudson, Trae Welch, Chandler Loupe and Scott Wilson. And abstaining from the vote after noting their desire for a deferral were Freiberg and Watson.
After both the vote to defer and to approve the smoking ordinance failed, it appeared to die and Mayor Pro Tem Wilson moved to the next agenda item.
But the Metro Council members quickly voted to reconsider it, and most of those who voted against the deferral the first time gave on in the second vote after realizing the proposed ordinance would die without being tweaked.
On the final vote, Cole, Collins-Lewis, Freiberg, Green, Hudson, Watson, Welch and Wicker voted to defer the ordinance . Amoroso and Wilson voted against the deferral. Banks and Loupe did not vote.