By Kevin Kutner
Hookah lounges may be forced to close their doors in Baltimore County if the County Council approves a bill introduced in early April.
The bill introduced by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is being considered as a result of complaints by residents about loud noise, underage drinking, and violence at local hookah lounges, where patrons typically share flavored tobacco from a hookah.
At a public hearing Tuesday, Gloria Walsh of Arbutus said she lives between two hookah lounges and has had many problems.
“I’ve had stuff removed from my front porch, so I placed a sign asking [those in the parking lot] to put my stuff back,” Walsh told the council. “They came on my front porch and turned all my furniture upside down and tore the sign down.”
According to County Police Chief Jim Johnson, officers have been called to five of the nine hookah lounges in Baltimore County 39 times and have made 37 arrests in the last six months. The arrests have been for drug use and assault, among others, Johnson said.
Kim Walt, the branch manager of Chesapeake Bank in Arbutus, also spoke out against the hookah lounges in her town.
“Every Saturday and every Monday I come to work I have to clean up vomit, beer bottles and trash,” Walt said. “I’ve had customers complain to me that there are people urinating in their yards and the parking lot.”
Some hookah bars have bring-your-own-beer policies, giving patrons an after-hours place to drink alcohol when the bars close.
Hookah lounge owners, however, believe the bill is too restrictive and could put many of them out of business.
Mourice King, the owner of the Tobacco Center, a humidor and hookah lounge located at 1838 E. Joppa Road, said that the bill, known as 16-14, would devastate his business.
“I believe bill 16-14, as written, is overreaching and will force me to close,” King told the council during the public hearing. “Most of my business comes after work hours during the week and late on weekends.”
The bill would only allow hookah lounges to operate between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. It would allow the establishments to stay open until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Currently, some lounges are open until 4 a.m.
Sam Sirbaugh, the owner of Towson Nights at 20 Allegheny Ave., also said the bill would shut down his business.
“We often don’t truly open until 8 p.m., so you’re essentially telling me to close down,” Sirbaugh said during his testimony. “I agree that hookah bars need to be regulated, but this isn’t the solution.”
Nancy Hafford, the executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview after the public hearing that some regulation is needed for hookah lounges.
“[Hookah lounges] don’t have any regulation,” Hafford said. “If someone is drinking underage they can’t get in trouble because there are no laws. Someone can get sick and totally OD from drinking, but it’s not their problem because they didn’t give them the liquor.”
In his testimony, King offered the council three possible amendments to the bill that he believed will help solve some of the problems surrounding hookah lounges.
King proposed that the council either make closing hours midnight during the week and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; allow the lounges to keep their current hours but prohibit them from allowing patrons to bring their own alcohol onto the premises; or create a hookah license similar to those required for bars that serve alcohol. Under this last option, King said, the county could close down individual hookah lounges that cause problems while not penalizing other establishments.
“One of the three amendments will work,” said Dennis Teagardin, a regular customer at King’s hookah lounge. “By regulating the alcohol, we can solve this problem. But closing down the hookah bars by regulating their hours will only choke their business.”
“As the owner of a hookah lounge that has never been part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution,” King said.
The council will vote on bill 16-14 on May 5.