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After 70 years of ripping cigs at the bar, McGlinchey’s was going cold turkey.

The Center City dive reemerged from the pandemic shutdown last month. And for the first time since opening its doors on 15th Street in 1952, the ashtrays that once lined the wraparound bar counter were gone.

Other than that, the dimly lit hole-in-the-wall hadn’t changed a peep. The stained glass windows. The duck hunter mural looming like a religious icon. The wraparound bar. The dirt cheap hot dogs, and mix of domestic and high-end beer with idiosyncratic price points ($2.55 Yuenglings!). The only difference was you could see it all without a blanket of Camel fumes.

One of the last smoking bars in Philadelphia, where a night out took two or three nights to wash off your skin, had officially gone non-smoking.

Had the pandemic snubbed out McGlinchey’s last butt?

Not by choice, exactly. Sheldon Sokol, who owns the bar with his brother Ron, said business has been slow since the reopening. If he could bust out the ashtrays again, he would.

“Not many people smoke any more, and the number is dwindling,” said Sokol, a 72-year-old non-smoker. “But it was a big part of our customer base and I’m going to try to get back to it.”

The Sokols have owned the joint since their father, Henry, died in 1985, and are ready for retirement. Ron, 80, has a son who works behind the bar, and is the apparent heir. McGlinchey’s closest competitors are Locust Rendezvous and Oscar’s Tavern, all located within a two block radius. But within the Center City dive bar circuit, McGlinchey’s and its upstairs companion, Tops Bar, attracted the smoke-friendly crowd. It was the bar’s main distinction.

“It’s just a cheap neighborhood bar,” Sokol said. “There’s not too many neighborhood bars around here. Most places are yuppified.”

Problem is, Sokol thought he couldn’t allow guests to light up indoors anymore — but he was apparently mistaken.

The cash-only bar got an exemption from the 2008 citywide smoking ban because of its low food-sale revenue. In early 2020, just before the pandemic hit, Sokol said he was forced to give up his indoor smoking exemption due to a conflict with a health department inspector. As he moved to reopen this year, Sokol said he was told he couldn’t get the exemption back because “the city cancelled all of the [smoking ban] exemptions because of the virus.”

It turns out there was a miscommunication. Maybe a bit of smoke and mirrors, even.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed it did not make any changes to the 2008 Clean Indoor Air Act during the pandemic, and Philadelphia regulates its own indoor policies around tobacco. City records show a health inspector did visit the 15th Street dive bar in February 2020, and found a number of sanitation issues (few of which would be surprising to anyone who’s gotten a beer or eaten a hot dog at McGlinchey’s over the years). But the report showed no issues with tobacco compliance, save for a note about cigarette butts discarded on the bar floor.

Reached by Billy Penn, the department’s environmental health and safety team couldn’t find any red flags on McGlinchey’s tobacco exemption. When indoor dining was banned, customers couldn’t smoke inside. But now, they’re in the clear, said health department spokesperson Jim Garrow.

The confusion apparently revolved around a tobacco sales permit. McGlinchey’s hasn’t sold retail tobacco products since 2013. But Sokol thought he needed that permit to allow smoking indoors again, so he reapplied this year.

Officials have since reached out to clear the air before it gets smoky again.

“We have explained to him that his exemption is valid and that he does not need a permit since he is not selling tobacco products,” Garrow said. “We are refunding his money and closing out the permit renewal application.”

Sokol was delighted.

“I have to go and buy some ashtrays,” he said. “I threw them all away.”

Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...