Three years after pushing a strict new anti-smoking law through the Howard County Council, local activists are poised to take to the streets -- undercover -- to enforce it.
Perhaps as soon as this weekend, about two dozen members of the Smoking Coalition of Howard County plan to begin visiting restaurants around the county.
They plan to pose as customers, ordering coffee or appetizers. But where they find smoking or inadequate nonsmoking signs, they will call the police. Violators of the law face fines of up to $250 per offense.
"We're going to pay a courtesy call," said Gary Jensen, pastor at Atholton Seventh-Day Adventist Church and leader of the operation.
In the meantime, restaurant owners plan to step up their lobbying of the County Council in hope of changing or overturning the law.
And some suggest the emotions are running so high on both sides that only a lawsuit will settle the dispute.
The anti-smoking coalition plans to begin its operation by visiting the county's 220 restaurants without liquor licenses, which were supposed to ban all smoking beginning July 1.
As it was originally understood, the law also was supposed to place strict new rules on Howard's 39 bars. But a county lawyer discovered a loophole this spring that virtually exempts bars: Because the law does not include specifications on the size of a nonsmoking area, it could be interpreted as allowing bar owners to reserve as little space as possible for nonsmokers.
The situation with the county's 90 restaurants with liquor licenses is more complicated. They must ban smoking except in sealed-off, separately ventilated bar areas -- the construction of which can cost up to $100,000, restaurant owners say.
Because of the cost and trouble involved in the renovations, County Executive Charles I. Ecker has extended a grace period to restaurants that serve liquor.
Those restaurants have until the end of the year to complete renovations so long as they show progress by applying for building permits by Sept. 8.
After that date, the anti-smoking activists will monitor restaurants that serve liquor.
County restaurant owners complain that the law forces them to lose business -- perhaps to restaurants in nearby counties -- or make costly renovations. Some say the law may push them out of business.
Pub Date: 8/13/96