ST. LOUIS • One of the city's most venerable private organizations, the Missouri Athletic Club, has refused to outlaw smoking in its downtown building and has been cited by the city — touching off a confrontation that, if escalated, could lead to the club's closure.
The city's health department sent a notice of violation earlier this week and fined the club $100.
If the Missouri Athletic Club continues to allow smoking, the health department can issue two more fines, of up to $700 total, by law. And if that doesn't clear the air, the city could declare the MAC a public nuisance, which would give the health department the authority to shut it down.
The violation is the first the city has sent to an establishment since a smoking ban took effect Jan. 2.
"Nobody's above the law," Mayor Francis Slay said on Wednesday. "Hopefully, we can convince them we're on the right side. If not, we'll have to take it further. This is about public health."
MAC President Chris Lawhorn declined to discuss the issue.
"Because we're a private club, we are addressing matters internally," he said. "And we intend to keep our matters private."
Health director Pam Walker said the club administration told one of her inspectors Friday that MAC attorneys believe the club is private and is therefore exempt from the ban. MAC rules, the inspector had been told, allow smoking in the lobby, inside the first floor's Jack Buck Grille, and in a section of the employee lounge.
The city disagrees.
"The ordinance says private clubs who do not have employees are exempt," Walker said. "Since they have employees, we do not feel we can exempt them."
The city's smoking ban exempts establishments if they meet certain criteria. Bars, for instance, must not make more than 25 percent of their revenue from food sales. And private clubs can't have employees.
St. Louis County, which enacted a similar ban on Jan. 2, has not cited any establishments for violations, said county health director Dolores Gunn. She didn't know of any businesses that have told the county they were going to continue allowing smoking, regardless of the law.
In Clayton, which has its own ban, managers at the Ritz-Carlton were apologetic late last month after getting ticketed for hosting a cigar club party, according to city officials.
Walker said no other business or group in the city has told her overtly that they weren't going to follow the law.
But others say it's unclear if the MAC is the only establishment scoffing at the ban, pointing to accounts of bars and restaurants still freely allowing smoking.
"I have a feeling things are running amok in the city," said Pat Lindsey, executive director of Tobacco-Free St. Louis, which pushed for the ban.
Walker, however, has said that city inspectors would get to each establishment in the city as they could.
The MAC has been an exclusive athletic, dining and social club for more than 100 years. In January, health inspectors visited the club after receiving complaints about smoking.
On Jan. 4, an MAC manager admitted to an inspector that the club was letting patrons smoke but claimed he couldn't change the situation without a decision by the board. Walker gave the club a month to comply.
On Jan. 19, inspector James Boswell contacted MAC general manager Larry Thompson again, according to the city violation notice sent to the club. Thompson said his attorneys told him the smoking ban "does not impact the MAC."
By late January, the MAC was still hosting cigar-puffing happy hours. One Friday night, at least a half-dozen men stood around the club's first floor bar, tumblers in one hand, stogies in the other.