Something always bothered us about the exemption that allowed smoking on the St. Jo Frontier Casino’s gambling floor. It should bother you, too.
There’s always some justification for this kind of realpolitik compromise, but it can fly in the face of a basic obligation of any lawmaking or regulatory entity: That all parties be treated as equally as possible.
The next thing you know, you’re tying yourself into a pretzel in order to rationalize a special carve-out for someone. With smoking at the casino, it was the benefit to city revenue, the competition from tribal casinos or the greater good of bringing an indoor smoking ban to the rest of he city. After a while, the pretzel becomes so twisted that no one notices it anymore. It’s not too big to fail, but it’s too complicated to unwind.
Now the coronavirus has refocused attention on a compromise that benefited one business while others were forced to comply with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
It’s difficult to read Councilman P.J. Kovac’s true reason for bringing this issue up. In 2014, he voted against an indoor smoking ban and stated on multiple occasions that he believed the casino must be included. Did he view it as an issue of fairness or a poison pill for the overall smoking ban?
The same question could be asked regarding his attempt to link the smoking ban to the indoor mask mandate, which is something he also has opposed. But it doesn’t matter. He didn’t create the inconsistency. He merely points it out.
Unlike the smoking ban, the casino is not exempted from the mask mandate. But the rules are routinely flouted, with casino customers figuring out that the mask has to come down when they light up. The casino isn’t the only place where mask compliance is somewhat shaky, but it is the only place where customers are able to engage in one habit that’s deemed unhealthy while being required to comply with another key health mandate. You can bet that nonprofit Bingo would have loved to operate under those rules.
The difference, of course, is that Bingo doesn’t provide more than $700,000 for various city expenditures, including money for festivals, the Remington Nature Center and stormwater improvements. (Buchanan County gets its share, too.) In expanding the smoking ban, the city would be, in effect, placing its own bet that the move wouldn’t cut into its own revenue. Now might be the time to act, with 125 casinos across the country banning smoking because of the coronavirus, although there’s some question whether those bans will be permanent.
Maybe Kovac was before his time in calling for a casino smoking ban in 2014, when the city was just beginning to tie itself into knots over the issue. But the time has come to unwind the pretzel.