Councilman sponsors ordinance to ban smoking inside casino picture

St. Joseph City Councilman PJ Kovac has sponsored an ordinance that would ban smoking inside the St. Joseph Frontier Casino during the coronavirus pandemic.

St. Joseph City Councilman PJ Kovac is introducing an ordinance that would effectively ban smoking inside the St. Jo Frontier Casino during the coronavirus pandemic, a model hundreds of casinos have followed.

Kovac also accused the city health director of turning a “blind eye” to the health of those who visit the casino.

“You know, we don’t want to hurt our revenue,” Kovac said sarcastically, referring to tax dollars the city receives from the casino. “So is it about money or is it about health? To all the other businesses, it’s about health.”

Debra Bradley, the city’s health director, said in a statement that casino patrons may not remove their masks to smoke under the current order.

“The only time a person would be able to smoke indoors, if allowed by law, would be if they go outside or are six feet from everyone else,” Bradley said in a statement.

However, Kovac said he has witnessed casino patrons removing their masks indoors while smoking in close proximity to others.

“A guy rolled up right next to me smoking the entire time,” he said. “He’s blowing smoke right at me, then he gets done, cigarette in his mouth with his mask down, goes all the way up the casino floor.”

Bradley told News-Press NOW that health department staff has visited the casino in regards to enforcement of the mayor’s mask order, but that no one has been fined or sanctioned.

“They (casino staff) were provided education on the current order and the expectation that if someone wished to smoke, they must either go outside or be at least six feet from others who are not a part of their household.”

Under the mayor’s current order, only managers and owners of businesses can be fined for failing to properly mandate masks. Unlike a similar order in Maryville, Missouri, individual patrons cannot face fines.

Brian Myers, another St. Joseph councilman, said he supports Kovac’s proposed ordinance. Myers said he would offer an amendment making the change permanent.

“Allowing patrons to smoke inside one public establishment and not the others is hypocritical,” Myers said. “If our local laws prohibit smoking publicly indoors, then they should also prohibit smoking inside the casino.”

A spokesperson for the St. Jo Frontier Casino couldn’t be reached for comment. Councilmembers Brenda Blessing, Kent O’Dell, Madison Davis, Russell Moore, Marty Novak, Gary Roach and Mayor Bill McMurray declined to comment for this story.

A spokeswoman for the Missouri Gaming Commission, the state agency that generally regulates casinos, said that it’s up to individual cities to regulate smoking inside the establishments.

To this point, Kovac has withheld his support for the mayor’s mask mandate, voting against it in both official and advisory capacities. The order enjoys majority support among the council, with Blessing, Moore, McMurray, Myers, O’Dell and Davis voicing their support at the last council meeting.

Kovac had initially asked McMurray to ban smoking inside the casino by mayoral order, but an email obtained by News-Press NOW shows McMurray urged Kovac to sponsor an ordinance.

According to CDC Gaming Reports, 125 casinos across the country that previously allowed smoking have banned the practice during the coronavirus pandemic, though it’s unclear how many of those will make the ban permanent.

Kovac’s proposed ordinance would technically ban smoking anywhere masks are required, but the only establishment inside the city limits that is allowed to have indoor smoking is the casino.

Matt Hoffmann can be reached at matt.hoffmann@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NpNowHoffmann.