Staff Columnist

Proceed with caution on banning beer, tobacco from parks in Cedar Rapids

A sign informing park users that it is illegal to smoke at Thomas Park is posted near the entrance to the park in Marion, Iowa, on Thursday, July 30, 2015.  (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A sign informing park users that it is illegal to smoke at Thomas Park is posted near the entrance to the park in Marion, Iowa, on Thursday, July 30, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Could problems in Greene Square light the fuse on a city push to snuff out your back nine cigar or banish beer from your park picnic? Maybe, maybe not. But government can move in strange ways when it’s in the mood for banning.

The Cedar Rapids City Council spent part of a special meeting this week talking about banning alcohol in Greene Square. The popular, renovated park has seen an uptick in issues and incidents this spring, including a fatal assault. Council member Dale Todd convened a group of neighborhood stakeholders that made a series of good recommendations for addressing recent trouble and making the park safer, including an alcohol ban.

It seems like a reasonable, focused move, one that Mayor Brad Hart wants to see on the agenda the next time the council meets in July.

But talk of a beer ban in Greene Square also is sparking a discussion of a much broader ban on drinking and smoking in city parks. The council is asking for data within the next 30 days to inform its decisions.

You can’t drink the hard stuff in any park, and beer already is banned in more than two dozen parks near schools or where imbibing-based issues cropped up. Several years ago, the city floated the idea of a total park tobacco ban, including on the city’s golf courses. Golfers who enjoy a cigar on the links raised a stink, so then-Mayor Ron Corbett moved to shelve the idea.

“They always claim they don’t inhale and it just keeps the bugs away,” said Council member Ann Poe during this week’s discussion of puffing duffers.

It used to be government was more concerned with exhaling, namely clouds of secondhand smoke that affect more than just the smoker. That was the compelling rationale behind banning indoor smoking in most public places in Iowa.

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It was the right call, and a case can be made that smoking in parks affects other park patrons. Council member Ashley Vanorny also pointed to the scourge of discarded butts around playgrounds, etc. Mitigating this collateral damage makes some sense

But puffing on a cigar, on a fairway, 100 yards from the nearest human seems like much less of a public health emergency. Heck, if we’re truly concerned about the health habits of golfers, maybe the city should ban the use of carts. Spoil your good walk with a Fitbit.

As for beer, in parks with drinking problems, restrict it. Otherwise, chill the impulse to ban cold ones for all.

There doesn’t seem to be mass enthusiasm on the council for broader banning. But once breathless health data starts piling up around their ears, there’s no telling how far members might go to save us from ourselves, or to look appropriately concerned. After all, it’s for our own good.

I hope they strike a reasonable balance somewhere short of swaddling residents in Bubble Wrap. One big problem with these hard-to-enforce bans is they end up being selectively enforced. What officials call “a tool” can be aimed at some citizens while others puff or sip unscathed.

Start with Greene Square and see how it goes. Don’t let power intoxicate. Use a scalpel, not a bag of clubs.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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