SMOKERS SPILLED OUT of the Matador on Friday night, September 10, crowding the sidewalk on West Burnside. Around 1 am, one bar-goer wandered a little too close to the door and bam, a staked-out state health inspector wrote the Matador a $800 fine on the spot for allowing smokers within 10 feet of its doorway.
Since the Oregon Smokefree Workplace law cleared cigarettes out of saloons in January 2009, bars have enjoyed healthier and less-smelly interiors. But Portland's bar owners say enforcement—which also bans smoking within 10 feet from any doorway, open window, or vent—has led to unfair fines and complaints as bars stretch their staff to police the public sidewalk.
The sidewalk outside the Matador is eight feet wide and includes a bus stop.
"It's one thing to enforce it inside," says Matador owner Casey Maxwell. "But the way this is set up, someone walking by outside could get us a ticket. They passed [the law], and they didn't really think of the consequences."
Dylan Bird owns the Bitter End Pub right next door and has the same complaint: "If someone walks down the street with a cigarette in their hand, all the bars on this street are in violation."
From January 2009 to September 2010, the state received 387 smoking complaints against Multnomah County businesses. Of the seven found in violation, three were fined. One was the Matador. The other two received fines for $500 and $1,100.
The department of public health couldn't comment on the Matador's fine because it was too recent to appear in its records. But it said businesses typically receive letters before agents show up to enforce the ban.
To protect workers, the state keeps complaints about smoking anonymous. But bar owners believe some complaints are frivolous, filed by disgruntled customers and employees.
"It could be someone we threw out of the bar for being a belligerent drunk," says Bird. "Anyone who's mad at the business can call it in."
Joshua Dommermuth, manager of Backspace, says his business received a warning letter soon after the ban went into effect, but the complaint was so vaguely worded that it was unhelpful. "There was no date or a time or anything," says Dommermuth. "We concluded that it was made up."
Jonathan Modie, a spokesman for the Oregon Public Health Division, says that in the interest of keeping workers safe from secondhand smoke, the state has to look into all complaints. "Not every complaint is valid, but we have to investigate all of them," says Modie.
Some bars, like Ground Kontrol, have taken simple measures to push smokers beyond the 10-foot zone. Ground Kontrol chalked a 10-foot circle outside its door and put an ashtray and umbrella outside the zone. But manager Art Santana says staff still has to be vigilant.
Some bars, like Tube on NW 3rd, have even moved their security guards outside to keep an eye on smokers instead of drinkers. That's led to more fights breaking out inside, says Tube owner Mikey McKennedy.
"We're a tiny bar," he says. "I can't afford to pay two door guys. It's a huge pain in the ass, and a major issue for us."