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Senator Blames Health Department for Smoking Ban Delay

 “Smoking will not be permitted in Betsy’s Bar. Hopefully, we will obtain some clarification of the law in the near future.”Health Commissioner Julia Sheen, in response to a call from the Source, said Tuesday afternoon that the smoking ban affecting bars, restaurants and public places scheduled to go into effect Wednesday would not be enforced forced for a three-month "grace period."
In the meantime, with no information forthcoming from the government, several restaurant owners left in the dark have taken matters into their own hands, posting signs about the ban.
Betsy Sheahan, owner of Betsy’s Bar in Frenchtown, has spent weeks trying to get a straight answer to the enforcement of the ban, contacting all the government agencies she could think of.
"I didn’t get any satisfaction," she said. "I even spoke to Sen. Malone, who said something was coming."
Restaurant owners on the East End say they’ve been equally frustrated. Natalie Madonia, a bartender at Molly Malone’s, said they had heard nothing, so have posted their own signs.
Becky and Ted Luscz, owners of the Hook, Line and Sinker restaurant were equally confused. "I want to obey the law," Becky Luscz said, "but I need to know what exactly it is and when it goes into effect."
The Senate passed the V.I. Smoke-Free Act in April, and Gov John deJongh Jr. signed it into law in May.
The law bans smoking in bars, restaurants and many public places, which are "enclosed spaces," and says business owners are to post no-smoking signs inside and outside their establishments.
The law is clear. It says the Commissioner of Health within three months after the enactment of the law shall give to the general public, and all government departments, written notice of the requirements of the act. Those three months expire Wednesday.
Speaking with the Source early Tuesday afternoon, Sheen said, "We have done an extensive media campaign in preparation for the legislation. We’ve had ads running in the theaters and newspapers about secondhand smoke."
However, no such information had been disseminated regarding the ban, and its enforcement or restrictions.
She said there has been a "back and forth with Sen. Malone’s office to finalize the information. In terms of specific education, we’ve met with Licensing and Consumer Affairs for them to provide a list of all retailers that will be impacted by the legislation."
She said, "We’re going to be putting together a fact sheet on the legislation to be included on our website and the DCLA website, when one applies for a business license.
Sheen said public hearings on the law will be held "within the next two months." DOH will not be sending out enforcement officers until the three-month period is over in February, she said.
According to Sheen, both DOH and DCLA websites will soon carry "no smoking" signs, which can be printed out. Currently, however, neither website mentions the law at all.
Late Tuesday afternoon, DOH issued a press release announcing the extension and outlining some of the provisions which answer a few of the questions that have been plaguing the public.
Specifically, the release states the act prohibits smoking:
– In enclosed areas of public places, which includes all restaurants, bars, casinos and other places of employment;
– Within 20 feet from any point of service or waiting line; and
– Within 20 feet of all outdoor public transportation stations and platform shelters opened to the public.
Malone, sponsor of the legislation, was clearly frustrated with the lack of public information. Speaking Tuesday morning, he said, "I have produced a PSA (public service announcement), reminding people of the ban. It’s a supplementary thing. It shouldn’t have to be done this way."
He said, "The Department of Health has not followed through. I wrote Commissioner Julia Sheen in September asking what happened to the follow-through. I got a response weeks later saying she had appointed a committee to work at implementing the policy. The commissioner, through a subordinate, wrote that they had a difficult time getting legal counsel."
Malone said he contacted Sheen again in October asking if she had received his letter. "Anyhow, in that conversation," he said, "she said she was appointing a committee to draft rules and regs, and that she would hold public hearings."
He said, "I’ve been contacted by several business people, including Betsy Sheahan of Betsy’s Bar, asking what to do. The entire thing is ridiculous."
On St. Croix, Brian Mika, owner of Angry Nate’s restaurant on the Christiansted Boardwalk, appeared as uninformed and frustratred as his St. Thomas counterparts. "No one has told us anything," he said. "No one from Health or DLCA has contacted us or given us any information on the law. I’ve never seen it presented clearly in a newspaper either."
On St. John, it was the same story. Lime Inn owner Chris Meyer allows smoking at the outdoor bar but not in the restaurant. "I need to know about it, it’s the law."
She said she’s aware the law pertains to enclosed spaces but isn’t sure what constitutes an enclosed space.
When deJongh signed the bill into law, he also sent the Senate a letter recommending it be amended and softened in some respects. He urged the definition of "enclosed space" be narrowed and said mandates for business owners to post nonsmoking signs inside and outside their establishment may be "overly burdensome," while charging people who violate the law with a misdemeanor is "troublesome" since it appears to "criminalize smoking."
Hill’s office is drafting legislation to address most of these issues, according to Hill’s Chief of Staff Colette Monroe.
Editor’s note: Bill Kossler and Lynda Lohr contributed to this report.

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