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Dave Roepke, Published October 02 2007

Smoke clears, worries linger

Routine turned Jon Vasquez into an accidental scofflaw. He walked into Vic’s Lounge in the Moorhead Center Mall on Monday, sat down, lit up a cigarette, called out to the bartender by name and asked for an ashtray.

The response? “No.”

“I thought he was joking with me,” Vasquez said early afternoon Monday, the first day Minnesota’s smoking ban extended to bars statewide.

It’s no joke. Cigarettes have been kicked out of the state’s bars like an unruly lush, butts landing in parking lots and sidewalks with an ever-so-polite “… and stay out!”

What that means for Fargo-Moorhead’s bar scene, where a different riverbank means a different set of laws, remains to be seen. We’ll have to wait for the smoke to clear.

Figuratively, that is. Literally, the wait is over. I always thought the burgers at Micks Office tasted good, but I had no idea what they smelled like before Monday. The air there was clear. Not top-of-the-Andes clear, but the odor of smoke can be unseated by the smell of meat surprisingly fast in the span of 12 hours.

Terry Kragero, who owns Micks, said he didn’t hear too much grumbling from his lunch crowd, which was on par with a typical light-’em-up Monday. But lunch is not the bellwether for turnout.

“Tonight will be the real tell – especially happy hour,” he said. At 6:30 p.m., the happy-hour crowd ran well short of two dozen, which Kragero said was normal for Monday.

Smokeless air would have been the big topic of conversation at Vic’s, Vasquez said, if enough midday drinkers were around to grant any conversation the status of big. What was wafting through the bar’s downsized clientele was teasing about Vasquez’s misstep.

“We cut off your right pinky the first time,” night manager Nick Daley joked. A customer bellied to the other side of the bar suggested police snipers might mow him down.

No worries there. Bar staff are supposed to ask smokers to snuff it out or step outside. If they refuse, police can get involved – without sniper rifles. Criminal charges could carry a fine up to $300. The pressing question isn’t what happens to stubborn puffers, it’s what’s in store for the bars forced to boot them.

With smoking still allowed in Fargo’s bars but banned in Moorhead’s, it’s tempting to think a shift to the west might be on tap – like the big bump Moorhead bars got when they could stay open an hour later than those in Fargo.

Maybe so, but it doesn’t mean Fargo bars are prepping to wet lots of extra whistles. Jeff Brown, manager at Bismarck Tavern, doesn’t figure it’ll do much for his place or any Fargo establishment.

Moorhead has a lot fewer bars than Fargo. When traffic flows west to east, the impact is significant. In reverse, not so much. It’s the difference between trying to empty a pitcher into a mug and emptying a mug into a pitcher.

If you’re staring at an empty mug, it’s a problem. Some Minnesota-side bars are building heated porches, some are planning events and cut-rate specials and all are anxious to see whether affection will trump addiction.

“I think they’ll miss the atmosphere, hopefully,” Daley said of his regular customers.

Handicapping the fight, it’s hard to give affection an edge.

“I’m from New Orleans, and people who don’t want to be around smoke don’t go where it is,” said Tammy Kail, an occasional Micks patron who said she’ll be drinking more in Fargo now. “Bars are meant to be what they are.”

What are they? Hazy dens of do-nothing where all our worst impulses get their best workouts, which is fun for some, sin for others, a job for a few, and, in one crucial way, illegal in the state of Minnesota.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535