At Helga’s Pub and Grille on Central Avenue, cigarette smoke generally wafts in the air and the smell of stale smoke fills the carpet. Owner Dave Greenfield said two regular lunchtime customers leave their suit coats and ties in the car to prevent their clothes from soaking up the smell.
The regular clientele at Helga’s, however, smokes far less frequently than just a few years ago.
“I’ve noticed people over the years are smoking less and less,” said Greenfield, a former smoker.
For the first time in the bar’s history, none of its bartenders smoke. Individuals should have the right to smoke or not smoke, he said, but a smoke-free establishment could protect his employees who often complain about second-hand smoke.
That’s one reason Greenfield and other restaurant and bar employees aren’t fearful a proposed Augusta city ordinance to ban smoking in public places, including bars, could cost them significant business.
Health benefits from a smoke-free environment have many ready to make the change and willing to take a short-term profit loss. The proposed ordinance had two public hearings and could again be taken up by the Augusta Commission’s public service committee Monday.
Whether or not the ordinance passes, Helga’s could be smoke-free by the year’s end. Profits from a busy holiday season could make up for the initial business loss that Greenfield predicts will level out with time. It’s possible that even more customers could frequent the pub if they don’t have to be bothered by a smoke-filled environment, he said.
Another local business owner, Mark Coleman, the general manager of Carolina Ale House on Robert C. Daniel Jr. Parkway, doesn’t expect the proposed ordinance to change his business. In 22 years working in the restaurant industry, he’s seen restaurants in other states carry on with a steady clientele after ordinances that prohibited or limited smoking.
“I think it’s great. It doesn’t make a difference. If everyone else has to do the same thing then it’s a non-issue,” Coleman said.
Except for a small percentage of restaurant diners that Coleman described as “die hard smokers,” people continue to eat out after legislation that banned smoking in restaurants.
“The guests know it’s not our choice. The county decides,” he said. “It’s a public place. It’s just like going into a government building. You used to be able to smoke in them. Now, you can’t.”
Sally Keiser tends bar at Stillwater Tap Room in downtown Augusta, and she hopes the ordinance passes for her own health and the health of her customers.
“People say, I have a right to smoke, but I have a right to be smoke free, too,” she said.
Keiser quit smoking only six months ago and said it was miserable to come into work each day and have to smell cigarette smoke and clean out ashtrays.
“I have no choice to be around it,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
The smoking ban might upset a few customers, but Keiser said she thinks it will bring more people out to bars that don’t come because of the smoky air.
“I think a lot more people might come out,” she said. “In the long run, I think it helps everybody.”
Staff writer Gracie Shepherd contributed to this story.