NEW YORK.- By Apostolis Zoupaniotis
Desperate because of the fines and the harassment they say they receive from city health inspectors, Greek cafe owners have started knocking on politicians’ doors, asking for fair treatment and a change of what they see as the unfair anti-smoking legislation that negatively affects their businesses. A group of these businessmen met on Thursday in Bayside, Queens, with City Council Member Tony Avella and expressed their frustration.
“Health inspectors come to my store and stay for hours, until they see a violation. This is harassment,” Nicos Grigoriou, of Athens Cafe in Astoria, said at the meeting.
Lee Gounardes, of Byzantion Cafe in Bayside, said the customers are feeling like second-class citizens; and they prefer to not hang around in restaurants, cafes or bars.
“Business is down 40 percent since the anti-smoking laws went into effect,” said Peter Pantazis of Lefkos Pyrgos patisserie in Astoria.
Each of the participants had a story to tell that showed the dramatic effects the law had on his business.
The sharp drop in sales forced them to eliminate employment positions, from 4 to 8 in each case. And then, the domino effect hit their suppliers and other businesses. In addition, the smoking prohibition forces many customers to go outside for a cigarette, but some of them use the opportunity to cheat on their bill and leave.
“Well, how could you prohibit a smoker from not going out to smoke?” asked Tom Skiadas, of Slate Billiards in Bayside, who says the city ties the knot around people’s necks.
Many times, owners have to get into fights with customers who insist on smoking.
“Can I call the police every time?” asked Skiadas.
Many people, he says, put their cigarettes out on the floors; they burn the carpets and they destroy the bathrooms with cigarettes.
Dimitris Nakos, of WIK in Bayside, said that while people going out to bars used to buy rounds for their friends, now they have a limited time of staying in the establishment, and they consume less.
Everyone had only bitter words to say about Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was described as a “heartless zealot.”
“Doesn’t he realize that he hurts the economy? We woke up one day and we saw that law in place. No one considered the effects. They said, let’s wait and see. Well, we saw it and we felt it,” said Nick Gregoriou.
They said that many people living in New York City prefer to go to places in New Jersey. They also pointed out that New Jersey canceled its plan to push similar legislation after the state started receiving business from New Yorkers.
Gounardes, greatly disappointed by the mayor, but also by the apathy shown from some politicians, says:
“There are too many Neros out playing the fiddle while we are burning.”
Councilman Avella expressed concern for the effects of the smoking ban to the economy because, he said, it slows the efforts for an economic recovery. He also agreed that there is room for compromise, if the necessary political will can be found.
“Unfortunately some people don’t want to acknowledge easily that they have made a mistake,” he said.
Avella said he doesn’t believe that there are no alternatives to insure clean air in these places.
“We can put the law to protect the public health; and at the same time, we can place filters to insure clean air,” he said.
Tom Skiadas said that he had placed “smoke eaters” in his place, that they were strong enough to keep the air clean.
“We have spent $4-5,000 for each unit, plus $500 for the filters, every three months.
Well, that was another waste of money,” Skiadas said.
Others noted that many businesses have spent tens of thousands of dollars, to create non- smoking areas. This money, they said, went down the drain too.
Avella suggested that the owners get together and start to voice their concerns to the politicians and the media. He promised to start talking to his colleagues at City Council, check on the available technology in the field of filters and ventilation, and if something comes up, to proceed with legislation.