Cloquet bar owners, police think smoking ban is a pack of hassles

Cloquet bar owners are struggling not only to make up lost business since the Carlton County smoking ban took effect, they are struggling to make sense of how to live with it.

Cloquet bar owners are struggling not only to make up lost business since the Carlton County smoking ban took effect, they are struggling to make sense of how to live with it.

The result, in Cloquet at least, has been a headache for city staff members and police.

Beginning on June 1, smokers in Carlton County had to stand at least 25 feet from any public entrance or ventilation intake. Most smokers who slipped down to the neighborhood pub began grudgingly complying with that law, and stepped outside to light up.

The problem is, many people started bringing their drinks outside, too -- and that means they are in violation of the city's liquor laws, which prohibit drinking in public.

"We're constantly shagging people back into the bars," said Cloquet Police Chief Wade Lamirande, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. And if people at downtown bars move 25 feet away from one door, they frequently end up standing too close to another door or air intake.


Lamirande said bar patrons also are walking off with glasses and pitchers of beer, bringing drinks out to their cars, even dragging tables and chairs outside to sit down.

That's all in violation of the city's public drinking ordinance. And while officers haven't started issuing citations, the problem is eating up a lot of staff time, Lamirande said.

Cloquet City Administrator Brian Fritsinger agrees.

"It's taken up a great deal of time and energy for the police and members of City Hall," Fritsinger said. Every day since the smoking ban went into effect, city officials have worked with local bar owners to try and find a solution to their complaints.

Fritsinger said city officials would like to meet with the Carlton County Board to explain how the smoking ban particulars are hitting businesses, though they aren't requesting any changes at this point, he said.

Many bar owners, such as Sue Holman, who owns the Lumberjack Lounge on Cloquet Avenue, have posted signs warning patrons not to take drinks outside.

"But people blow right past those signs," Lamirande said.

While Cloquet police officers are keeping busy trying to enforce their own public drinking laws, law enforcement attention in some of the smaller towns in Carlton County isn't as constant, Lamirande said.


Rob Mohelski, owner of Rob's Mahtowa Tavern, runs the "one horse" beer-and-a-burger joint a few miles off of Interstate 35 south of Cloquet. His bar business is down by half, he said, though his off-sale liquor business is up a little. He said some of his customers are driving to other counties or north to the Black Bear Casino, where the smoking ban doesn't apply.

Mohelski has several picnic tables set up about 25 feet from the entrance -- they are usually used during his annual folk festival -- though now customers are using them to as a place to sit, socialize and smoke.

Mohelski said he tells customers not to bring the drinks outside, but admits it's tough to keep an eye on what everyone is doing when he's the only person working.

To complicate things more, a few Cloquet bar owners have attached outdoor patios, half of which can be dedicated for smokers. The Carlton County smoking ban allows smoking in permanently fenced-off patios.

But other bar owners see those businesses serving alcohol to smokers outside and wonder why they can't do that.

Businesses can apply for an outdoor smoking-area amendment to their current liquor license, though many don't have space to do so. The outdoor areas require approval by the Cloquet City Council.

Sue and Gene Holman decided enough was enough as business has slowed at the Lumberjack Lounge over the past three weeks.

"We noticed business going downhill right off the bat," Sue Holman said. She estimated their business has been about one-third of normal since June 1, and said many customers have gone to bars that have outdoor smoking areas.


Although business was so slow that the Holmans had to cancel the bar's karaoke night on Wednesday for the first time in 10 years, and though they cut some staff hours, they are investing in fencing, tables, chairs and building renovations to put in an outdoor smoking patio. The patio, approved Tuesday night, will take up most of their parking lot. In the winter, they plan to put up a small shelter for smokers.

"I'm hoping it will help," Sue Holman said. In the 13 years she has owned the Lumberjack, she said business has never been so slow.

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