March 24, 2001 -- Holding a cigarette, taking slow, languorous drags and exhaling puffs of smoke above a just-devoured plate of food in a favored restaurant is comforting and downright essential to a lot of people and, some say, especially to New Yorkers.
That is why a group of smokers, bar and restaurant owners are expected to descend on New York's City Hall today to protest a proposal by City Council Speaker and rumored mayoral candidate Peter Vallone that would further limit smoking in restaurants throughout the city.
Scott LoBaido, an artist from Staten Island, who gained notoriety for hurling fists full of manure at the Brooklyn Museum to protest an exhibition by cutting-edge British artists that includes a dung-spattered Virgin Mary, is leading the protest.
LoBaido first told the media 10,000 would show up for the rally that starts at the South Ferry Terminal and heads a few blocks to Whitehall Street and City Hall in downtown Manhattan.
But the number has since dwindled to "somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000," according to LoBaido, who did procure a permit from the City Parks Department and the First Precinct for the rally.
"Speakeasies are going to come back to New York again," professed LoBaido, referring to places operating illegally where patrons can enter with a secret password. "If no one can smoke anywhere in New York, it will be time for the speakeasy."
What Will Become of New York's Tourism Industry?
One Soho restaurant owner, who did not want to reveal his name, said he ignores the Smoke-Free Air Act and does not have a restricted smoking area in his establishment.
"A lot of my customers are French or sophisticated and they want to smoke after a good meal and if I don't let them they won't come here," he said. "I have only paid the fine a few times."
He said he was planning to stop by the rally.
As for his part, Vallone said that the new law is "critical to protecting employees of establishments where smoking is permissible and that the protestors are misguided in their fury over the proposal."
"More people are visiting New York, eating out more often and paying higher checks than in the city's history," Vallone said. "Make no mistake: the Smoke-Free Air Act has made New York City an even better place to visit and live."
The proposal has already had one public hearing and Vallone said he expects to have at least two more. The expansion of the smoking ban would not allow smoking in all restaurants where food is 40 percent of the revenue of the business, regardless of seat number. It would also tighten restrictions on smoking in private offices and outdoor dining areas.
"No one wants to breathe someone else's smoke at a restaurant," Vallone said.
Currently, if a restaurant in New York seats less than 30 people smoking is allowed, or if there is an area, usually near the bar, that is separated from the rest of the restaurant smoking is allowed.
"The smoking situation is one in which restaurants should be able to make the decision on their own," said Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the Greater New York Chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association. "It's an issue of choice and not one the City Council should be mandating."
As more and more states start legislating where and when someone can smoke, advocates like LoBaido say smokers' ire will only hurt the economy.
"Who will go to a bar in which you can't smoke, or a restaurant where you can't smoke," he said. "No one wants to sit around and hang out in a restaurant if you can't smoke. They will just leave after their meal and that business that would have stayed, ordered more drinks and hung out would be gone."