This will be the last weekend of legal smoking in all but a handful of Howard County restaurants, a victory for anti-smoking activists that they plan to clinch in every cafe, diner and bistro across the county.
Sunday marks a crucial deadline in the enforcement of Howard County's anti-smoking law, the strictest in Maryland and one of the strictest on the East Coast.
"It's a big deal, and it's not a surprise," said Eric Gally, president of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition. "This is what the public wants."
County leaders have been trying to ease Howard restaurateurs into complying with the new law -- even offering a grace period -- but as of Monday only restaurants with plans on file with the county for separately ventilated smoking rooms may legally allow smoking.
County officials estimate that only a dozen or so of Howard's more than 300 restaurants will file plans on time, meaning that owners of the others will have to eliminate smoking or defy the law.
Anti-smoking activists plan to use various tactics to encourage restaurant owners to eliminate smoking.
A statewide group, the Coalition for Smoke Free Maryland Workplaces, promises to have several dozen activists doing spot inspections next week, said the group's co-chairman, Al Ertel. "We will be making courtesy calls," he said.
A local group, the Coalition for a Smoke Free Howard County, will reward restaurants that eliminate smoking with public ceremonies and certificates of recognition, said one of the group's leaders, Gary Jensen of Columbia.
Sunday's deadline is a product of County Executive Charles I. Ecker's effort to ease county restaurants into compliance with the anti-smoking law, which passed over his veto after a long legislative battle in 1993.
The supporters of the law -- originally sponsored by Councilman C. Vernon Gray -- intended to eliminate smoking in all restaurants and bars, except in separately ventilated bar areas, by July 1 this year.
But this spring, as restaurant and bar owners lobbied to overturn the law, a county lawyer discovered a drafting error that virtually exempts Howard's 39 bars as long as they have some area -- even a phone booth or a foyer -- where smoking is not allowed.
And for the 90 county restaurants that serve liquor, Ecker offered a grace period until the end of the year.
But as it became clear that many restaurant owners were ignoring the law, Ecker set stricter terms, requiring that the restaurants apply for building permits for the required renovations within a month.
That deadline is Sunday. Because county offices will be closed then, applications for building permits must be in by the end of the day today or restaurants that serve liquor will lose their grace period.
Only five had applied by yesterday, and only a couple of others had initiated preliminary discussions with county officials that typically precede building permit applications.
Barring a flood of applications today, only those few will be allowed to continue to allow smoking.
The 220 other Howard County restaurants without liquor licenses were not given the option of making renovations and had to eliminate smoking July 1.
"The math is pretty simple," said William A. Thies Jr., the Ecker aide charged with implementing the law. "Five permits other than that, everybody else, you're smoke-free."
The law enrages many restaurant owners, who say they are being forced to choose between costly renovations and rules that will drive smokers to other counties.
Clyde's restaurant in Columbia Town Center briefly considered eliminating smoking until customers' complaints persuaded managers to spend almost $100,000 enclosing their bar area -- originally designed as a centerpiece of the restaurant -- in glass.
On Monday, it appears, Clyde's will be one of the few restaurants where smoking will be legal.
"We want to be able to serve all of our clientele and potential clientele," said Claude Andersen, corporate operations manager
for Clyde's parent company. "We had a major furor and uproar of people complaining that they'd never be back again."
Peg Browning, an Ellicott City anti-smoking activist who lost her larynx to cancer, said most of the county's restaurants already have eliminated smoking because of the law.
By Monday, she said, she and other local activists will reach a goal they have sought for years. "I think it's a big one," Browning said. "I think it's setting the pace for the rest of the state."
Pub Date: 9/06/96