Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced August 28 that he will not move forward with planned enforcement actions against the city’s hookah lounges that were to begin August 31. The announcement came after a meeting with the lounge owners, the City Attorney’s Office, and the Office for Civil Rights, and follows almost a month of protests over the mayor’s original plan to shut down all illegally operating hookah lounges in the city.
The mayor stressed that although none of the city’s 11 hookah lounges will be shut down, they will need to start following the laws banning smoking in public places and places of employment (something the hookah lounges in Seattle tried to circumvent by claiming to be private clubs). Ten of the 11 lounges were issued fines for violation of the law, and will be inspected regularly to make sure they’re complying with the laws.
The mayor said his decision came from learning more about how enforcement of the law would have an impact on the businesses, most of which are East African-owned and serve a diverse clientele.
Action against hookah lounges called racist
The mayor’s initial announcement on August 3 that the city and King County would collaborate on action against Seattle’s hookah bars was met with protest over what many saw as unfair, even racist enforcement of the law.
During the public comment period at the city council meeting on August 10, Nabil Mohammed, owner of the Medina Hookah Lounge, said blaming the hookah lounges for crime was unfair, and called on the city to address the problem of crime in the ID directly.
“The closure of hookah lounges is orchestrated to make the mayor appear decisive about ending violence without addressing the actual issue,” Mohammed said. “We came to this country to better our lives. The way the mayor has rushed making the announcement without considering the Racial Equity Tool makes it look like what our parents have experienced back home, which is undemocratic.”
Mohammed was followed by Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle/King County NAACP and president of NAACP for Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, who went further, accusing the city of disproportionately targeting black businesses.
“It’s sad actually that we can sit here and talk about a decision that’s made by someone that claims to be a progressive in a largely liberal city, coming up with a plan to eliminate black-owned businesses while half the city is fighting against gentrification and elimination of black businesses statewide,” he said.
API leaders react to mayor’s change of heart
The mayor’s original decision came after protests calling for the closure of King’s Hookah Lounge following the murder of Donnie Chin in the International District on July 23. King’s Hookah Lounge is across the street from Legacy House, a retirement home in the ID, and had been receiving complaints for years. Chin had been outspoken about the problems he saw with the lounge, and lost his life in the vicinity of the area.
According to API community leader Bob Santos, who organized two protests in the ID which brought the attention of the mayor, ID residents have long complained about noise late at night from King’s Hookah Lounge clientele and shootings in the area. Santos said he still would like for the city to take action against King’s Hookah Lounge. “The owners of this lounge either need to move this business to another location far from a residential zone or just close up,” Santos said in an email.
Neighborhood community members said that while they support small businesses, they will speak out against any business that creates problems for its neighbors and attracts bad elements to a residential area.
Teresita Batayola, CEO of International Community Health Services (ICHS) wrote a letter August 17 to the City Council supporting the mayor’s initial August 3 decision to take action against the two lounges in the ID, which she described as a “blight” in the community.
ICHS Foundation director Ron Chew said that ICHS still supports taking action to close hookah lounges in the neighborhood.
“We’re supportive of small businesses, we believe that immigrant small businesses are the lifeblood of our community,” Chew said, “but when two businesses have a track record of being very bad neighbors and attracting bad elements, particularly to a residential area where we operate, we’ll speak out.”
API community leader Frank Irigon said the mayor’s reversal on taking action against all hookah lounges in the city is reasonable. Irigon was one of several community leaders who marched in protest of King’s Hookah Lounge presence in the neighborhood, but he said he never anticipated that the mayor would try to close down all lounges in the city.
“I was for closing down the hookah bar, but I wasn’t in favor of closing down all the hookah bars,” he said. “I didn’t know that was part of the package, if you close down one you close them all.”
This sentiment was echoed by Santos. His aim was to close King’s Hookah Lounge, he said, but he had no interest in closing Medina Hookah Lounge, also in the ID, or, for that matter, any others in the city.
“I have no problem with the [Medina] Hookah Lounge located at 8th and South Dearborn Street,” Santos said in an email. “In fact during the two marches organized a month ago to focus on the closure of King Lounge, the protesters bypassed the lounge at 8th and Dearborn.”
When asked if he had plans to organize more protests now that King’s Hookah Lounge would not be targeted for closure by the city, Santos said he is waiting to see what further actions the city will take.
Irigon said he is still in favor of closing the King’s lounge, as long as the owner is fairly compensated.
But after learning that hookah lounges could still find a way to operate by transitioning to using steam stones, and would probably stay open for the time being, Irigon said he believes it’s important that the ID community work together with hookah lounge owners.
Irigon and other community leaders met with hookah lounge owners, including Mohammed, at the IDEA space in the ID to discuss ways the lounges could be better neighbors. Mohammed told Irigon he had learned more about the ID community as a result of the controversy, and wanted to get involved more.
Irigon said welcoming East Africans into the ID is simply fulfilling the ID’s name: the International District.
“This is what it’s all about—you have small business people trying to achieve their American dream,” Irigon said, “and whether it’s a hookah bar or whether it’s a laundry business or a restaurant, they’re all trying to do the same as our predecessors did trying to make a living here in America. This is one thing that maybe many of us forgot, that is what the International District is all about—it’s not just Chinatown, it’s Chinatown International District.”
The city’s new strategy
The Office of Economic Development has been instructed by the mayor to work with hookah lounge owners to provide technical assistance concerning compliance with city, county, and state law. In addition, Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights has begun utilizing the City’s Racial Equity Toolkit to analyze potential hookah lounge regulations and the public health and safety impact of those businesses on their employees, patrons, and neighborhoods in which they operate, the city said in a statement.
The city also said that while business licenses of hookah lounges will not be revoked for public health violations, periodic inspections may occur to ensure compliance with current law. In the meantime, the city is developing a regulatory business license that is being considered by the mayor and the Seattle City Attorney. A regulatory license would be able to address public health and safety concerns including operating hours, age restrictions, and security requirements, among others.
“It is my goal to shut down all hookah bars who are engaged in illegal activity in the state of Washington,” Murray said, King 5 News reported. “There’s been no change of heart. We are willing to work with owners of hookah lounges on transitioning to a legal model, but currently under state law they’re illegal. You cannot smoke in a commercial establishment for a profit inside in the state of Washington.”