Seattle officials have retreated from a plan to rapidly shut down all 11 of the city's hookah lounges. Mayor Ed Murray had announced the crackdown on Aug. 3.

Share story

Seattle officials have backed away from a plan to shut down all of the city’s hookah lounges after seeing lounge owners and allies pack City Council meetings in protest.

Rather than moving immediately to close the lounges, the city will work with the lounge owners to make sure the businesses are in full compliance with a state ban on indoor smoking in public places and places of employment, officials said Friday.

The mayor held a news conference Aug. 3 to announce the city would move to shutter the 11 lounges for violating the ban voters approved in 2005.

Murray linked the businesses to violent illegal activity, speaking emotionally about the July 23 fatal shooting of Chinatown International District community leader Donnie Chin outside a hookah lounge, and two other recent homicides near such lounges.

The mayor unveiled the crackdown plan flanked by members of Seattle’s East-African-American and Asian-American communities, including a representative from the city’s Somali Health Board, a nonprofit organization catering to Somali immigrants.

But dozens of lounge owners and patrons, along with other supporters, showed up at council meetings on Aug. 10 and Aug. 17 to wave signs and speak against the plan.

Describing their lounges as private, members-only clubs exempt from the indoor-smoking ban, the owners accused officials of unfairly targeting a group of businesses run exclusively in Seattle by people of East African and Middle Eastern descent.

They challenged the alleged connection between hookah lounges and violence, saying they were being held responsible for incidents beyond their doors. Chin was killed about 3 a.m., two hours after a nearby hookah lounge closed, they noted.

At the Aug. 17 council meeting, a large number of people testified in support of the shutdowns, citing the negative health effects of smoking.

Following Murray’s Aug. 3 news conference, the city sent lounge owners letters informing them their business licenses would be revoked and instructing them to close no later than Aug. 31.

But after meeting with owners Thursday night, officials have decided to suspend that deadline indefinitely.

“I have heard frequently … from many voices and perspectives in our diverse East-African community, as well as the Asian-Pacific-Islander community, who have expressed to me their concerns about smoking lounges,” Murray said Friday.

“It’s clear that something must be done. At the same time, I have also heard clearly the impacts enforcement efforts may have on the owners,” he added.

Brian Surratt, director of the Seattle Office of Economic Development, said the city is changing course because owners are now willing to work on complying with the indoor-smoking ban — either by using steam stones rather than flavored tobacco, or by becoming private clubs more completely.

Steam stones are a tobacco alternatives that give off vapor rather than smoke.

“Yesterday’s meeting was the first opportunity for everybody to sit at the same table and understand fully what the regulatory landscape looks like and recognize pathways to get into compliance,” Surratt said.

Asked why officials didn’t meet with the owners before Aug. 3, Murray spokesman Viet Shelton said: “At that time, the city was not aware of any willingness of the lounge owners to have a conversation about how to get into compliance.”

Asked whether officials no longer believe the lounges are associated with violence, Surratt said: “My conversations with the businesses right now are strictly confined to helping them get into compliance.” The lounges, like all businesses, should work hand in hand with community members to address concerns, he added.

Russell Knight, a lawyer representing the owners of nine of the 11 lounges, said his clients are pleased that city officials scrapped the Aug. 31 deadline.

“They’re very positive about (the city) backing off that threat,” he said.

The owners continue to believe their businesses comply with state law and will take the city to court on the subject if necessary, Knight said.

But before they sue they’re open to talking with officials and potentially making some minor changes to their operations, the lawyer said.

John Schochet, an assistant city attorney, said City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office was ready to support Murray in closing the lounges but now will defer to the change in plan.

The Seattle Office for Civil Rights will use the city’s Racial Equity Toolkit to analyze the community impacts of hookah lounges and hookah-lounge regulations.

A spokeswoman for Public Health — Seattle & King County, which inspects businesses like hookah lounges and cites them for violations of the indoor-smoking ban, said that agency will continue with those inspections and citations as usual.

The Murray administration’s retreat Friday somewhat echoes what happened in 2013.

Under then-Mayor Mike McGinn, officials planned to clamp down on hookah lounges by issuing more tickets to patrons, then decided not to, with McGinn calling the approach too punitive and not sensitive enough to cultural issues.