The Lawrence Licensing Board brought the hammer down on nearly a dozen nightclubs in the city last week, rolling back their hours to 11 p.m. for 15 to 30 days because they violated the Board of Health ban on hookahs.
At the board’s monthly meeting in City Hall, chairwoman Lesly Melendez and commissioner Kathleen Darwin went down the list of nightclubs caught in a series of raids by police, fire and inspectional services officers, mostly in 2018, meting out harsh penalties in an effort to snuff out the use of hookahs.
The rollbacks to 11 p.m. are set to start in 10 days, Melendez said.
Acting Inspectional Services Director Mike Armano told the club owners that he didn’t want to close them, just get them to act safely.
“My interest is not to shut down 10 nightclubs,” he said. “You yourselves have called in to inspectional services begging us to take action because if some clubs have hookahs and others don’t it’s unfair. We are being proactive. We want to see this stopped.”
Armano added that “every establishment we interviewed admitted there was a problem” with hookah use. “My only plea is that we remain consistent” in the punishment meted out by the board. In that vein, the two-person board gave 15-day rollbacks to 11 p.m. for first-time offenders and 30-day rollbacks to 11 p.m. for establishments with two or more infractions.
Club owners interviewed after the meeting said they were surprised by the harsh punishment, noting that closing at 11 p.m. was as good as being shut down for the entire night because club patrons don’t usually hit the clubs until after 11 p.m.
On Friday nights, the clubs are allowed to stay open until 2 a.m., meaning they’ll be losing three hours of potential business on those nights. Other nights they close at 1 a.m.
“We are going to be lose money, definitely,” said Xavier’s owner Zavier Yagual, whose club at 245 Lawrence St. got a 15-day penalty. “It will be a tough couple of weeks.” He noted that the rollback to 11 p.m. means there’s “no point in opening up.”
Xavier’s got its 15-day rollback for a hookah infraction noted by inspectors on Aug. 17, 2019.
Mark Trempe, owner of La Cava which got hit with a 15-day rollback, said he was confused by the change in the laws regarding smoking outside. He said he thought he was in the clear initially because hookahs were being smoked on the outdoor patio of his club, located at 22 Union St.
“I built my patio based on the old rule” which allowed outside smoking, Garcia told the board. “I saw them come take pictures, but nobody ever told me I was doing anything wrong.”
Licensing Board chairwoman Melendez said there is a law in Lawrence banning hookahs. K-Oss, a club at 596 St., reportedly had hookahs and paraphernalia on May 5 and Aug. 9, 2018, during regular business hours, according to Armano.
Owner Robert Garcia countered, however, that on Aug. 9, when photos were taken, his customers weren’t using them.
“No one was smoking,” he said. “They (hookahs) were in the building but not being offered to patrons.”
Armano replied, “I can’t say if hookahs were available that particular night but you were in possession of paraphernalia, which shows intent, and that you had been using them.”
Delaney said that on May 5, inspectors found charcoal was being hidden outside behind the establishment where wind was blowing embers around, creating a fire hazard. Plus, he said, inspectors went in Jan. 1 and found the club overcrowded with hookahs in use.
Because the club had two infractions, it was given a 30-day rollback to 11 p.m.
Garcia said after the meeting that the 30-day penalty was “very unfair. We are bleeding due to the fact that we don’t have hookahs. Since we stopped, we are hemorrhaging money. For me to roll back to 11 p.m. for 30 days, it’s like being closed for 30 days. It’s a very unjust punishment.”
He added, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
The Blue Lounge, at 2 Amesbury St., was also hit with a 30-day rollback. Armano testified that inspections had been conducted on May 13, 2018, and June 10, 2018.
Fire inspector Capt. Patrick Delaney said measurements were taken inside the club that night showing unsafe conditions, including the temperature of one of the walls being 260 degrees. He said there were also traces of carbon monoxide in the building. Plus, the heating element used in the hookah was measured at 560 degrees.
“Real fire danger here,” he said.
Atlantico Restaurant, at 170 South Union St., was also hit with a 30-day rollback, which was contested by owner Yovanny Geronimo.
He said someone from inspectional services came into his establishment and took pictures. He said he was never told it was an inspector.
“We were told there was a lawsuit against us, then we got here and they said it was hookahs,” he told the board. “If I knew that was a problem, I would have called a lawyer.”
Armano countered that “all establishments” were called and spoken to about the hookah problem.
Delaney noted that he had been in Atlantico several times and saw “burn marks” on the floor of a back room where the hookahs are prepared for use in the club. Geronimo quickly countered, “That was from years ago.”
He added, “I own three businesses. We are being forced to shut down because our (customer base) is going to Lynn, Methuen and Boston. With the rollbacks, we are getting shut down. I don’t even have the hookahs anymore. ... We’ll have to close during the week.”
Several clubs had their rollbacks delayed.
The owner of El Jarro, 21 Newbury St., said he hadn’t gotten the paperwork from police and fire inspectors until Wednesday. As such, a public hearing on what will likely be a 15-day rollback got delayed until Oct. 16, the date of the next Licensing Board meeting.
Attorney Robert Minasian, who represented Las Palmas owner Maria Thomas, said his client had just received the police report on Wednesday as well and was unable to mount a suitable defense. The board voted to hold the hearing on Las Palmas on Oct. 16.
Malaya’s Restaurant, at 2 Mewbury St., had the same issue, as owner Juan Hildago said he had just gotten notice of infractions and didn’t have time to get a lawyer. His hearing will also be held Oct. 16.
Also facing rollbacks are MIR Inc., of 102 Essex St., and Acqua Lounge, 151 Essex St.