EASTON -- A tough Talbot County anti-smoking law that was to have taken effect today was blocked at least temporarily yesterday when opponents turned in what appeared to be enough signatures to put the issue to referendum next year.
Opponents of the law yesterday presented the elections board with signatures of 2,254 people said to be county voters. That is nearly 600 more signatures than the number required to put the law on a ballot. By law, 10 percent of the county's registered voters must sign a petition to bring an issue to referendum.
The measure, which is believed to be one of the most rigid anti-smoking ordinances on the East Coast, would ban the use of tobacco in all restaurants and most workplaces.
Activists on both sides said that if the petition is verified as expected, they will begin planning for a yearlong battle to win support of county voters.
The County Council passed the measure Aug. 10 with little conflict, partly because many in the restaurant industry here believed it would simply require separate smoking and nonsmoking sections, a feature most already offer their patrons. The law was scheduled to take effect 60 days after its passage.
But when restaurant owners realized the bill had been quietly changed to ban smoking in most public places -- including all dining areas -- they argued that it would mean ruin for them because they would lose customers to neighboring counties without smoking bans.. They vowed to overturn the law at the polls in the November 1994 general election.
The law exempts bars, bowling alleys and pool halls. Restaurant owners said they were being unfairly treated because most of the county's eating places are not either bars or restaurants, but a combination of both. Under the law, they would be smoke-free.