Gone in the pandemic: Smoking in Tampa dive bars

You’ll have to step out to light up at The Hub, Tiny Tap and other watering holes.
Bartender Kelley Primo, 43, takes a smoke break outside of the Hub after the new rule prohibiting smoking in the once very smoky dive bar on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020 in Tampa.
Bartender Kelley Primo, 43, takes a smoke break outside of the Hub after the new rule prohibiting smoking in the once very smoky dive bar on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Oct. 8, 2020|Updated Oct. 9, 2020

Call it the end of an era. A smelly, nicotine-stained era when you could gauge a person’s mood by how high the butts piled up in the ashtray, or spark a conversation with, “Got a light?”

The Hub, one of Tampa’s most-beloved dive bars, has banned smoking after 70 years in business over concerns about spreading the coronavirus.

Although co-owner Charles Fox said the bar considered going non-smoking for years, he said when people are blowing smoke during a pandemic, you worry they could be blowing virus out along with it.

Some regulars have complained about having to step out onto Franklin Street to light up, possibly losing their seat or getting hit up by those who’d like to “borrow” a cigarette, but Fox said the bar has also gained customers who didn’t like the hazy atmosphere.

“We still have our unique characters, customers and daily insanity of a bar in the middle of downtown,” he said. “Other bars in other states maintain the dive status with no smoking. It’s just a little different. Like when new craft beer came out. People adjust.”

A few miles away, the Soho neighborhood’s signature dive Tiny Tap, also 70 years old, announced a no-smoking policy when it reopened in September after the COVID-19 shutdown. Owner Casey Powell said he’d been carefully considering the change even before the pandemic, but the reopening seemed like an opportunity.

“I have one regular, he’ll sit here and smoke an entire pack," Powell said. “I haven’t seen him. But overall the positive feedback has outweighed the negative, even from the smokers. It was just getting to be too much."

Pete’s Place on Henderson Boulevard decided that the pandemic was the right time to “clean up” and finally phase out its smoking area. Management said that with masks and capacity restrictions, there were better uses for the space.

“We kept the feeling of a dive bar though,” said general manager Chuck Calhoun. “We still do karaoke, we still put the lights down low.”

The Bad Monkey in Ybor City, like many Florida bars, began serving food during the pandemic in order to reopen sooner. But if they continue with food, they legally can’t allow smoking inside.

“Smoky” has been appended to “dive bar” for as long as we’ve been using that term for aging, neighborhood joints that rarely serve food, but are generous with the well liquor pours and $2 beers. The chairs are covered in vinyl, the tables in Formica, and the restrooms in graffiti.

Jimmy Lunsford, 49, of Ocoee watches television at the Hub after a new rule prohibited smoking in the once-smoky dive bar on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020 in Tampa.
Jimmy Lunsford, 49, of Ocoee watches television at the Hub after a new rule prohibited smoking in the once-smoky dive bar on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

You know these bars. That’s why they never have to advertise. When cigarettes were outlawed in most of Florida’s public, indoor spaces, we began associating them with smoking even more. It became a quirky character trait. You can still smoke in here? Wow.

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A Florida constitutional amendment banning smoking in workplaces, including restaurants and bars with food, went into effect in July 2003. About 30 U.S. states have banned smoking in all bars and restaurants, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

Related: The Hub, Tampa's beloved dive, turns 70

We asked readers to complete the sentence, “The Hub without smoking indoors is like _____ ," and they responded.

It’s like Gasparilla without cannons.

Bern’s without steak.

The Castle without the Senator.

Others praised the change.

A breath of fresh air.

Me being able to go inside and not suffer from a sinus infection.

Ashley Dieudonne joked that not reeking of smoke after being at the Hub makes for “a much easier way to lie about where you’ve been all night.”

Leslie Mattern has been going to the Hub for about 10 years. She held the launch for her book of poetry there, and frequents rock and soul night. She even visited the bar on her wedding night. She said the drinks are strong, the live music is good — even when it’s not — and yeah, it was pretty cool that you could smoke.

“In some sense, it was nice to go into a divey, smoky bar, and disappear into a corner with your friends,” Mattern said. “But I don’t think (banning smoking) detracts from its essential divey bar-ness. It’s still going to be a place where people feel comfortable. I want to believe the Hub will always be the Hub, and smoking is not intrinsic to what it means to be that dive bar in Tampa.”

Shannon Baxley, 37, started going to the Hub when she moved to Tampa Heights back “before Armature Works and Hidden Springs were a thing." She didn’t know anyone in town, and she’d go into the bar late after working in hospitality. It became like a second home.

Related: The Flamingo turns 50. Is it the oldest bar in the city?

“I knew I could go and end up in a conversation with any number of people from every walk of life,” she said. “The thing that hasn’t changed is the draw of diverse people.”

Clouds of smoke, whether or not they’re your thing, “don’t make a place what it is,” she said. “The Hub is still the Hub."

Hub customers said you can still take the edge off without breaking the bank, play some foosball and huddle over the jukebox (even if some of the labels have fallen off and you’re not sure what number the song is you want to play). It’s still the only bar in town where the bathroom has its own Instagram account.

If you must smoke indoors while imbibing in Tampa, there are still options. Tapper Pub on Dale Mabry Highway and the Reservoir Bar in Ybor City are among the handful of bars that allow smoking inside.

More responses from our prompt, “The Hub without smoking indoors is like _____ .”

Ybor without the shoe licker.

I-4 and 275 without traffic.

A diving bell without oxygen.

Not yelling in the library. Wonderful!

A bar I would go to so much more.

Hulk Hogan without a bandana.

Asking for a glass of water at The Hub and actually getting it.

Putting on clean underwear but still needing to shower.

A prostitute with no clients.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa on level.

Oreo without the filling.

Smoking in a daycare center.

The Lightning without Steven Stamkos.

Like Tom Waits all of a sudden could sing opera as a tenor.

The end of the world is near.

• • •

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