Prohibiting overnight hours at hookah lounges effectively would eliminate one central Ohio establishment, according to its owners.
Columbus City Council is considering tighter regulations for such establishments, and a provision of a draft ordinance prepared by city officials would force the lounges to close from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. weekdays and midnight to 7 a.m. weekends.
"If they try to shut us down, this is the way to do it," said Romeo Issa, who owns Midnight Hookah, 1167 Mt. Pleasant Ave. in Columbus' Italian Village, with Tarek Albast.
The draft ordinance was discussed Dec. 5 at City Hall but no official legislation has been introduced and it has no timeline, according to city officials.
A hookah lounge was the site of another Columbus homicide after a shooting at 4:15 a.m. Dec. 10 that killed a woman and left two men wounded. When officers and Columbus fire paramedics arrived at the Exhale Hookah Lounge in the 2000 block of Lockbourne Road in south Columbus, they found three shooting victims on the floor, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
Early in the investigation, the Columbus Division of Police had no suspect or motive for the shooting. It occurred during an after-hours party at the hookah lounge, which is in a strip center on Lockbourne Road, police said. Nationally, it was the second fatal shooting to occur at a hookah bar that morning, as police in Nashville handled an incident in which one man was killed, according to the Dispatch.
Leaders of the Somali community, whose complaints caused City Council to take closer look at the local hookah establishments, said the lounges promote an unhealthy lifestyle and attract minors, who hang out at the venues until early-morning hours, causing mischief when they leave.
Hassan Omar, director of the Somali Community Association of Ohio, said younger Somalis have been introduced to the hookah environment by others.
"It's not our culture," Omar said. "Right now, it has become a problem with the community, especially the youngsters. People are worried about the underaged. People are saying 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds are going to purchase tobacco (at hookah lounges)."
Omar said the lounges are alluring to young Somalis.
"So many people become addicted," he said. "Instead of going to go school, they go there."
Recent years have brought a proliferation of hookah lounges, mostly in Columbus' University District and Short North.
A hookah is a device used to smoke flavored tobacco. The tobacco is loaded on the top of the device and the smoke, which travels through water, is inhaled through tubes attached to the hookah. Several people can smoke from a hookah simultaneously.
One of the concerns health officials have is that patrons could pass communicable diseases to others using the hookah.
Issa and Albast said they run a clean establishment and have safeguards to protect customers' health and keep them from bringing in drugs.
Midnight Hookah demands IDs from anyone entering the establishment because tobacco sales in Columbus are prohibited to anyone younger than 21, the owners said.
"We don't want the young crowd; that gives us a headache," Albast said.
None of the hookah lounges sell alcohol because of laws banning smoking indoors.
Issa said Midnight Hookah, established in 2007, refuses to allow anyone carrying an open bottle, regardless of its contents, into the lounge.
Those who are suspected of being inebriated when they enter the lounge are asked to leave, Issa said.
Issa and Albast said they are not defending tobacco products as safe but they believe their customers are old enough to make the decision whether to smoke.
The safeguards to keep patrons from sneaking in drugs begin with a rule that all tobacco must be purchased at the front counter, Issa and Albast said. The interior, meanwhile, is lined with cameras to detect any unwanted activity.
If the odor of drugs -- marijuana, for example -- is detected, those who brought it in are required to leave, they said.
The environment at Midnight Hookah is one of camaraderie, a place where people can relax, converse, play cards and board games, and grab a bite to eat, Issa and Albast said. They said it provides an alternative to people smoking at home in front of children.
Midnight Hookah doesn't open until 4 p.m. because there is little daytime business, Issa said. It often draws people with second- and third-shift jobs and whose entertainment options are limited.
"They want to go somewhere safe," he said, "and that's here."
The Columbus Dispatch reporters Jim Woods and Sheridan Hendrix contributed to this story.