Mayor Ed Murray says he's standing by his crackdown on hookah lounges in the city. He won't, as Seattle City Council member Nick Licata recently proposed, support a 60-day review of the businesses in lieu of moving directly to shut them down, Murray told Licata in a letter sent Wednesday.
"These businesses are in clear violation of Washington State's ban on indoor smoking," Murray writes. "Washington State has some of the strictest indoor clean air laws in the country... The business model [hookah lounge owners] have been operating under has been tolerated by multiple administrations and that has erroneously led many to believe they are operating in accordance with Washington law. That is simply not the case."
But Murray is making this more than a public-health issue. When he announced the crackdown earlier this month, he claimed the 11 hookah lounges in the city should be shut down because they are connected to fights and murders, including the recent murder of community leader Donnie Chin near a hookah lounge in the International District. Police chief Kathleen O'Toole came to the press conference where the crackdown was announced armed with statistics that included three recent murders and 100 fights near hookah bars since 2012, but she admitted bars and clubs bring about similar issues.
The mayor's approach has drawn criticism that the crackdown is unfairly targeting businesses traditionally owned and frequented by East African and Middle Eastern residents.
"Neither Chief Kathleen O'Toole nor I have ever claimed that these businesses are the cause of the violence that has occurred outside their establishments," Murray writes to Licata. "Instead, we have made the argument that these businesses are attracting clientele that are engaging in violent and criminal behavior. In many instances, that violence is being perpetrated in the early morning hours when no other businesses in the area are open."
Since Murray announced the plan to shut the lounges down, opponents have packed council chambers. Many of those speakers have been of East African descent. This week, supporters from the East African community also showed up, arguing in support of the crackdown for public-health reasons. The divide was mostly a generational one, as Josh Kelety at PubliCola has pointed out, with older commenters speaking against hookah lounges and younger people arguing for their cultural importance as a safe alternative to bars.
“His [the mayor’s] mouth pieces are going out and giving false allegations [about hookah lounges] to our communities," Nabil Mohamed, an Ethiopian hookah lounge owner, told PubliCola. "There are people who have official titles with the city, who used to work for the city, still work for the city, who go down [into East African communities] and organize for the mayor, for the mayor’s political salvation."
State law bans smoking inside any place of employment, so any business with paid employees and indoor smoking is illegal, according to Murray's office. To enforce that, Murray is directing his staff to revoke hookah lounges' business licenses using new rules recently passed by the city council meant to target illegal marijuana businesses. Licata led the work on those new rules and questioned whether using them against hookah lounges was in line with the their "spirit." (Smoking lounges have argued they should be exempt from the smoking ban because they are private clubs where employees are part-owners or family members.)
In his letter to Licata, Murray says his staff will now be "meeting with business owners this week to discuss ways they can come into compliance with the law as soon as possible."