Hookah lounge owners in Baltimore County told the County Council on Tuesday that proposed legislation to make them close earlier would put them out of business.
Council members are weighing a proposal by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz that would require the lounges to close at 8 p.m. on weeknights and 9 p.m. on weekends, restrictions Kamenetz says would prevent neighborhood disruptions and curb illegal activity. At a Tuesday work session, the council heard from business owners who said they are being unfairly targeted and from residents who say lounge patrons wreak havoc in their neighborhoods.
Hookah lounges are businesses where patrons smoke flavored tobacco through a hookah — or communal water pipe. A provision in the state's Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007 allows smoking at such establishments. Unlike bars, hookah lounges are not licensed or otherwise regulated by the county, and some stay open after bars close and let patrons bring their own alcohol.
According to Baltimore County officials, some hookah lounges in the county have been the subject of complaints about underage drinking, violence and late-night noise — concerns they say intensified when three people were shot outside a Randallstown hookah lounge in February.
Arbutus resident Gloria Walsh lives between two hookah lounges and said she has had to deal with noise from patrons yelling in the middle of the night and otherwise disrupting the neighborhood.
"Its ridiculous," she said. "I've been there 25 years. I've never had anything like this."
County Police Chief Jim Johnson said the department has been called to five of the county's nine hookah lounges 39 times over six months, and made 37 arrests. All of the incidents occurred after 9 p.m., he said. Problems have included drug use, assaults and other criminal activity, Johnson said.
Maurice King, who owns the Tobacco Center & Cafe in Parkville, said police have never been called to his business, which specializes in hookahs and cigars. He said most of his customers visit after work, and closing at 8 p.m. "will force me to close."
"I hope that a couple of bad apples will not spoil the whole bunch," said King. Several of his patrons attended the hearing to show support and told council members they enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the business.
Courtney Sirbaugh, a waitress at the Towson Nights hookah lounge, said employees there strive to protect public safety. The business employs seven security guards and enforces underage drinking laws, she said. "Closing at 8 o'clock is pretty much going to put me out of a job," she told the council.
The legislation would also apply to vapor lounges, where customers can purchase and smoke electronic cigarettes.
Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said after the meeting some council members may amend the bill to allow the lounges to stay open later than Kamenetz wants, because they feel the proposed closing times are too early. A vote is scheduled for May 5.
"There are some hookah lounges that have problematic histories, and there are others that have excellent records," Marks said. "We want to be very mindful of public safety, but we don't want to put them out of business."
Kamenetz's chief of staff, Don Mohler, said the executive feels the proposal is reasonable but "we respect the legislative process and we'll let the council do its work now. We obviously hope that the council takes into consideration the quality of life in neighborhoods all across the county."