Villa Rica businesses are being asked to obey a no-smoking ordinance after years of “sporadic” enforcement of a rule that has been in effect since 2012.

On June 16, Mayor Gil McDougal issued a memorandum to the city’s police chief and the community development director, asking that they take steps to ensure the enforcement of the city’s smoke-free air rule.

McDougal also directed that a copy of the memo, and the ordinance, be delivered to every business with an alcohol license, warning that they are responsible for making sure their customers don’t smoke inside the business.

The memo resulted in pushback from one city merchant, who told the mayor and all council members that he felt the city’s action was not in support of local businesses already adversely affected by the pandemic business shutdown.

But McDougal said Tuesday that the ordinance, designed to create smoke-free zones in the city, would, if enforced, ensure that all businesses would be “following the same set of rules.”

The ordinance, known as the “City of Villa Rica Smoke-Free Air Ordinance,” was adopted by City Council in 2012, in response to a similarly named state law enacted in 2005. In basic terms, it prohibits all indoor and outdoor smoking in public spaces in the city, with only a few exceptions.

The rule specifically names restaurants along with other retail establishments and further prohibits people from smoking outside the entrances or near windows of such businesses. The rules cover both tobacco products and electronic cigarettes, and it requires merchants to enforce the rule inside their establishments.

Those who smoke in a prohibited area are subject to a $100 fine, with increasing fines for repeat violators. Business managers who persist in not enforcing the ordinance could lose their business or alcohol license with the city.

But although the ordinance has been on the books for over eight years, its enforcement has apparently become lax.

McDougal said he took his action after he said several citizens asked him if he, as mayor, could do something about people smoking in public places, particularly while they were waiting in line to enter stores who were restricting the number of customers inside because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And he said that at least one business owner had said he felt that the city was “looking the other way” when some businesses violated the rule, which was unfair to others who were enforcing it.

In his June 16 memo to Police Chief Michael Mansour and Community Development Director Bobby Elliott, whose office oversees code enforcement, McDougal said he had reviewed the city’s Smoke-Free Air ordinance since these complaints and was asking city officials to use the powers of their offices to “re-invigorate the enforcement” of the rule.

“This ordinance was adopted by the Mayor and Council in 2012 with the intention to prohibit smoking in most public places in the City,” McDougal wrote. “In the past years, it has only been sporadically enforced. From this point forward I ask that you vigorously enforce the ordinance according to its terms.”

He directed that a copy of the ordinance and his memo be delivered to businesses with an alcohol license and that the owners be encouraged to “re-read the ordinance and comply with all of its terms,” including the posting of no-smoking signs and making sure their customers are not smoking.

But on June 22, Russ Phillips, owner of the Cinema Tavern Reel Sports Bar & Grill on Montgomery Street, pushed back against McDougal’s action, saying that his business already follows state law and felt that the city’s action — taken amid the economic stress of the pandemic — was not in support of small business owners.

Phillips detailed the personal and financial sacrifices he had made to grow his business and the further obstacles he has faced in the past several weeks during the economic slowdown.

“If there ever was a time in American history for government to be working with small businesses and not against them — then that time is now,” Phillips wrote.

He noted that Georgia law says that smoking can only occur in businesses that restrict their premises to those aged at least 21, something he said his business has always adhered to. What’s more, he noted that the smoke-free ordinance cited by the mayor “was never officially passed.”

Indeed, the smoke-free ordinance was not one of the other previously passed ordinances adopted within the Municode set of ordinances during a March 1, 2016, council meeting. At a subsequent meeting, the council was to consider whether the smoking ordinance should be modified, but that action was tabled and has not since been discussed.

In a reply to Russell, McDougal said that means that the ordinance is valid and should be enforced.

“While I unequivocally support small businesses, and I can certainly relate to individual responsibility, that support has to include everyone following the same set of rules,” McDougal said. “For that reason … I believe it serves the City of Villa Rica, its citizens, and each and every business and their owners to apply the ordinance equally.”