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Boos, bravos greet first day of smoking ban
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Boos, bravos greet first day of smoking ban

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"Good morning, Sunshine," waitress Rene Cavaness said to one of her regular customers who walked in Sunday to the decades-old Courtesy Diner on South Kingshighway in St. Louis.

Linda Simcock was not living up to her nickname, however, on this day — the first day most bars, restaurants and public places in St. Louis and St. Louis County went smoke-free.

Simcock, 60, started coming to the 24-hour diner while she was a student at the old Southwest High School nearby. Since her husband died 14 years ago, she comes in every day and sits at the counter for breakfast or lunch. She stays for about three hours, chatting with the employees, drinking coffee, reading the newspaper and smoking her cigarettes.

"I'm going to eat my breakfast, drink my coffee, and then I'm going to leave," she said angrily after getting her eggs, ham and hash browns. "When they start taking things away from me at my age, it's not right. I'm 60 years old, and I want to smoke. And they are going to tell me 'no'?"

The county smoking ban was passed by 65 percent of voters in November 2009. The city Board of Aldermen approved a similar measure, contingent on the county passage.

While some like Simcock were angry over no longer being able to light up while at their favorite countertops or bars, others were happy to breathe cleaner air while eating lunch or watching the football games at their favorite neighborhood spots.

"It was really nice to walk in and not have that waft of smoke hit you," said Daniel Flier, 54, while eating lunch at Biggie's Restaurant and Bar on Watson Road, which is known as much for its stale air as it is for its burgers. Flier and his friend, Drew Formenti, 46, said they already noticed that not only did the air seem cleaner, but so did the tables and walls. They probably will go out to eat more and stay longer at bars because of the ban, they said.

"I didn't go out that much because of the smoke," Formenti said. "It really makes it a better eating experience."

Many business owners, however, fear the loss of their smoking patrons will hurt their bottom line.

Owners of the Post Sports Bar and Grill in Maplewood were among the few celebrating the ban.

"We're proponents of it," said co-owner Bill Cipriani, who opened the bar nearly two years ago. He is the first to clean the restaurant before it opens and always had to open the windows because of the smell. He also had to change the ventilation system's filters, turned black from doing their job. "It's a more enjoyable environment for all," he said.

A crowd still filled the Post's large open room Sunday to watch one of the games playing on the nearly two dozen television screens covering the walls. The only thing that was missing were the ashtrays and smoky haze.

"I'm happy the kids can go out and not have to breathe it in," said Kristen Mertz, 43, who came with her boyfriend and two sons because they like the cheese sticks, hot wings and potato skins.

Some businesses are exempt from the ban, including some private clubs and casino gambling floors, as well as bars that earn no more than 25 percent of their revenues from food. In the city, bars also cannot be larger than 2,000 square feet or allow anyone under 21 inside. All bars, however, must go smoke-free by 2016.

Friendly's Sports Bar and Grill in the Tower Grove South neighborhood is exempt. Owner Denny Domachowski had to post signs on the front door that read "Warning: Smoking allowed here" and "You must be 21 years old or older to enter."

Friends Robert Fries, 70, and Mike Foster, 68, were happy to continue spending their retirement days at the bar, drinking a bucket of six beers for $10, enjoying a bratwurst and smoking.

"If I couldn't have this, I'd be miserable. I'd be crazy," Fries said. "This is our life."

At the table behind them, however, regular Carl Dischert, 51, had a different story. He only smokes when he drinks. If the bar were not exempt, he said, "I would probably quit."

Karen Kircher, 46, a bartender at Biggie's, said she wants to quit smoking and thinks that having the ban in place will help her. But she worried about losing customers.

"If I'm healthy but broke, then what the hell am I going to do?" she said, drawing laughs from the few sipping on their beers.

Many smokers said they didn't mind having to light up outside, despite the cold. "I'm a realist. I understand people don't like it," Matt Bloomberg, 25, of Clayton, said while taking a smoke break outside Blueberry Hill in the Delmar Loop. A folding table with three ashtrays was set up outside until the restaurant and bar opens its 'smoking porch" with radiant heaters this week.

But at places such as Courtesy Diner, where ashtrays sat aside the salt and pepper at the long counter and five booths, eight out of 10 customers used to walk in with a cigarette in their hands, and the waitresses smoked by the pay phone in the corner — it's a culture change.

"Your toast will be right up, Sunshine," manager Will Rugg told Simcock, as she sipped on coffee from one of the special decorated mugs the employees save for her. The other customers get plain white ones.

On Sunday, she would just have a cup, maybe two, she said. "I'm very mad."

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