Seattle backs down on hookah crackdown (for now)

Michael Perez puffs from a shisha at Cloud 9, a hookah lounge in Seattle's Central District. (Photo by Jama Abdirahman)
Michael Perez puffs from a shisha at Cloud 9, a hookah lounge in Seattle’s Central District. (Photo by Jama Abdirahman)

Seattle officials are stepping back from a hookah lounge ban, which would have closed the businesses by Aug. 31. The city and lounge owners are continuing discussions on compliance with existing smoking laws — and whether the city is applying them equally to all smoking-related businesses.

Fathi Karshie, an Ethiopian community member who was present at the meeting between city officials, business owners and their attorney and others, said the meeting’s tone was respectful after several weeks of passionate rallies in support of and against the hookah lounges.

“It was reconciliatory, was my view,” said Karshie, who publicly questioned the wisdom of targeting the businesses as sources of crime in an editorial published by the Seattle Globalist earlier this week.

The state’s smoking laws bar tobacco use in public places, but makes an exception for a private club that requires membership, which are considered private spaces. The point of contention between the city and the hookah lounge owners is whether the lounges have been complying with those regulations and operating legally.

Mayor Ed Murray announced the crackdown several weeks ago, in the aftermath of the shooting death of community leader Donnie Chin in the International District near a hookah lounge. Chin’s friends said that he had been concerned about the proliferation of hookah lounges in the International District, which residents say have brought crowds to the neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning.

Russell Knight, the Tacoma attorney who represents nine of the city’s eleven hookah lounges, said while the city cracked down on the hookah lounges, cigar lounges, which have similar rules, were not included in the stepped up enforcement. He says the city has not explained the difference between the two types of businesses.

“We literally have the same business model,” he said.

He said one difference is that the hookah lounges are frequented and owned by people in the East African and Middle Eastern communities

The city is also is conducting an analysis on the racial impact of the crackdown as part of the ongoing discussions.

Knight told the Globalist that the hookah lounge owners are willing to go to court to prove they are compliant with the state laws and don’t deserve the implication that the lounges attract violence.

“We would be happy with a set of guidelines that would be written and applied equally to hookah lounges and cigar lounges,” Knight said. “We continue to work with them and hope they recognize there is a disparate application of the rules.”

“We ask that they apply it evenly,” he said.

The county’s public health department has taken action against individual hookah lounges in the past, including against Medina Hookah Lounge and the Night Owl in January. Former Mayor Mike McGinn also tried to close them in 2013, but backed down.

But this year, widespread calls for the closure of the lounges came after Chin, founder and executive director of the International District Emergency Center, was shot near King’s Hookah Lounge last month. The owner of King’s told news site Crosscut that his business had been closed for the night several hours before the shooting.

At least two rallies calling for the closure of the hookah lounges have been organized by International District leaders.

However, hookah lounge supporters also have rallied support at City Hall and elsewhere, saying the crack down appears xenophobic and pointing out that violence hasn’t taken place inside the lounges, which are themselves alcohol-free.

The ACLU of Washington also criticized the stepped up enforcement this week, saying in a letter to the mayor’s office that the issue of street violence should be separate from enforcement of city and state laws:

Private business owners may be responsible for the safety of their customers within their establishments. However, they are not responsible for preventing criminal conduct that occurs in the surrounding neighborhoods. Punishing business owners for the criminal actions of people outside of their establishments is unfair and ineffective. If the City closed every establishment that served customers who were later involved in a crime, there would be far fewer businesses in this city.
Public safety would be better served, and scarce city enforcement resources better used, if the City focused its efforts on identifying and addressing the root causes of violence rather than pursuing blanket enforcement efforts against a particular category of business.