Hookah on—for now.
Hookah on—for now. Roman Rybaleov/Shutterstock

Late-afternoon Friday news dumps aren't just for the Washington State Department of Transportation. Mayor Ed Murray's office sent out a press release at 4:36 p.m. announcing in painstakingly bureaucratic terms that they're going to hold off, for now, on shutting down the 11 hookah lounges in the city.

This follows weeks of consternation since the mayor first announced that the lounges were operating in violation of the state smoking ban and attracting crime, and that the city was going to shut them down. Hookah lounge owners and supporters claimed the move was racially motivated and that the businesses were being unfairly blamed for crime.

After a Thursday night meeting between mayoral staff and hookah lounge owners, the mayor asked city departments to hold off on revoking the lounges' business licenses while they discuss how the businesses could come into compliance with the state's indoor smoking ban (which prohibits smoking inside places of employment). However, the mayor's proposal to do that does little to address his claim that hookah lounges are a magnet for crime. It would also require the hookah lounges to completely change their business model.

The mayor's office is proposing that the lounges switch to steam stones, "a form of vaporizing rather than smoking." According to the mayor's office, "A hookah bar using steam stones would not be subject to the private club restrictions and could operate as public places with employees."

“Hookah lounges cannot continue to operate illegally as smoking establishments," City Attorney Pete Holmes says in the statement. "Converting these businesses to a steam stones vaporization model is our best path forward now to bring them into compliance with state and local law. Like every other business, they must also comply with all city laws, including tax and building codes.”

Holmes' office is now creating a new type of business license for steam stone lounges.

Another proposal to make the businesses lawful, favored by some hookah lounge owners, is to keep the same kind of hookah smoking and make the lounges private clubs.

"They want to make case that there is a private club model that could work," says mayoral spokesperson Viet Shelton. "We're willing to have that conversation," he said, but added he's unsure how a private lounge could avoid having paid employees. According to the mayor's office, "Under the state law and the Board of Health Code, volunteers are employees for purposes of no-smoking laws, and the definition of 'owner' is an open question."

"It's a high threshold," Shelton says, "but [the hookah lounge owners] want to have a final conversation."

What's even less clear is how the mayor can allow these businesses to stay open without backing away from his claim that they're attracting violence? How does changing the way people are smoking/vaping inside change anything? And if they don't actually need to be shut down, then is the mayor willing to say they're not a true public safety issue?

"We are committed to addressing the issue of these businesses operating outside the confines of the law and addressing other issues of public safety," Shelton says. "We still have those same goals, but we have an opportunity, I think, to work with the lounge owners who want to work with us and get to a place where they are legal and operating safely and in the confines of the law."

At the initial announcement of the planned crackdown, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole pointed to 100 fights since 2012 and three homicides in the last year and a half near hookah lounges as evidence of the public safety issues associated with them. But O'Toole acknowledged that bars and clubs pose the same sorts of issues. They, of course, are not being threatened to be shut down.

One of O'Toole's earlier claims was that because the hookah lounges are often open later than bars, they become "an attractive nuisance, so to speak." Shelton says the new business license for steam stone lounges could include limited business hours. He is not sure when that license will be unveiled or when the next meeting with hookah lounge owners will be.