As part of the effort, the City Attorney’s Office on Monday filed gross- misdemeanor charges of failing to pay business taxes against King’s Hookah Lounge and two owners of the business located within blocks of where Donnie Chin was killed July 23.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced Monday the city was taking steps to shut all 11 of the city’s hookah bars, the indoor smoking lounges that public officials say are operating illegally and that recently drew attention after the fatal shooting of Donnie Chin in the Chinatown International District.
Murray, emotional at times, acknowledged it took too long for him to act on a problem that existed before he took office in 2014.
He said he became intimately aware of the issue when he met last year with a mother whose son was fatally shot outside a hookah lounge in the International District.
The lounges are rooted in ancient Indian and Middle Eastern customs of socially smoking tobacco out of water pipes. Owners say they are private, members-only clubs, where employees are part owners and exempt from indoor smoking laws.
“I don’t want to see another person killed or harmed as a result of violence related to hookah lounges,” Murray said at a news conference.
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As part of the crackdown, the City Attorney’s Office on Monday filed gross-misdemeanor charges of failing to pay business taxes against King’s Hookah Lounge and the two owners of the business located within blocks of where Chin, 59, was killed in a car July 23.
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said other hookah-lounge owners could face similar criminal charges.
The early-morning slaying of Chin, the beloved director of the International District Emergency Center, sparked an outpouring of grief and anger and renewed calls to close King’s, where police have responded to the past two years to fights, reported gunshots and other problems outside the establishment.
Murray called Chin a hero who had raised concerns about King’s.
More broadly, according to the mayor’s office, there have been two other homicides near hookah lounges in the past 18 months, and Seattle police have responded to more than 100 fights and disturbances in and around them since 2012.
The businesses also are considered by officials to be in violation of King County ordinances and the state’s public indoor-smoking ban passed by voters in 2005, endangering patrons and employees.
Operators of the lounges, which are rooted in ancient Indian and Middle Eastern customs of socially smoking tobacco out of water pipes, maintain they are private, members-only clubs, where employees are part owners exempt from the law.
While police say they have not tied Chin’s slaying with a hookah-lounge customer, his death has galvanized hookah-lounge opponents, including a large turnout of members of the East African and Asian communities and a Somali health leader who flanked Murray at the news conference.
One of King’s owners said Monday that his business is being unfairly targeted in response to Chin’s killing.
“I want to deliver this message: I was closed for two hours when that happened,” said Amar Al Alimi, whose name was spelled somewhat differently on the criminal complaint brought against him.
Al Alimi said he can’t control what occurs outside his lounge.
Murray said closing the lounges is a legal process that will take time, including under recent amendments to the city’s business licensing code related to marijuana retailers but that allow broader use.
Under changes that go into effect Aug. 16, the city may revoke the license of any business conducting unlawful operations, including violations of the ban on smoking in places of employment.
Owners who operate without a license could face a misdemeanor charge carrying up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Murray said legislation also will be submitted to the City Council to explicitly ban businesses that sell tobacco for use on their premises, with the intent of blocking licenses or permits stemming from legal loopholes.
In the meantime, inspectors from Public Health — Seattle & King and the city, along with police, will continue efforts to enforce smoking laws, he said.
The lounges, which sometimes stay open until the wee early-morning hours, don’t sell alcohol, attracting patrons under 21 while also drawing older customers after bars close at 2 a.m.
According to Public Health, hookah smoke is as harmful as cigarettes.
About 12 percent of high-school seniors have indicated they had used hookahs in the past month — about the same as smoking traditional cigarettes, according to 2014 data, according to the agency.
At Seattle Hookah Lounge in the University District Monday night, Fahad Almansour, 22, sat on one of the many couches in the open, relaxed space.
He said he often smokes hookah at home and even in the car, but he likes the social aspect of lounges. He added that when he doesn’t have homework — he’s a community-college student in Everett — he likes stopping by lounges to relax.
The city has long been troubled by the lounges but scrapped plans two years ago to clamp down on the businesses.
Amid suspicions of mayoral election-year politics and alienating minority communities, police cited concerns about plans to target customers. Then-mayor Mike McGinn defended the police department, saying the city ought to work with businesses to get them to comply with rules, similar to way the city works with nightclubs.
After the news conference, Holmes, the city attorney, reiterated that his office gave its approval to an aborted city-health department operation scheduled for June 22, 2013, aimed at driving away customers by issuing tickets. The plan collapsed in confusion and frustration.
Since then, Public Health sought court injunctions in January after hearing-examiner rulings against two hookah lounges that had been ordered to stop allowing patrons to smoke from water pipes.
One of the cases, against Medina Hookah, is scheduled for trial early next year after a judge denied an emergency injunction. The other hookah lounge, The Night Owl, paid fines and fees and chose to close.
“While we can’t close hookah lounges, we can investigate lounges and collect evidence of failure to comply with the smoking ban,” Public Health spokeswoman Sharon Bogan said in an email Monday.
Included are unannounced visits and other efforts, prompting some hookah lounges to simply close rather than contest findings while others continue to operate as the agency escalates enforcement steps, Bogan said.
The owner of Medina, which is located on the edge of the International District, said Monday that he had worked closely with Chin to deal with issues and that officials were unfairly blaming hookah lounges for illegal activity that has plagued the area.
“I’m part of the community,” said Nebil Mohammed 30. “I have a mortgage to pay. I am a law-abiding citizen.”
Information in this article, originally published Aug. 3, 2015, was corrected Aug. 4, 2015. In some editions, the name of Sharon Bogan, spokeswoman for Public Health — Seattle & King County, was misspelled.