Up in smoke? Vancouver hookah lounge struggles in pandemic

Special Reports

Ali Abuhamdeh is determined to get his business through the pandemic.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Plenty of businesses have been struggling to get by during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hookah lounges are among those having an extremely difficult time. 

Hookah lounges serve as place where people can smoke flavored tobacco through water pipes. It’s a tradition that started centuries ago in the Middle East and India and is now a social activity in places around the world. While there aren’t many of these businesses in Oregon or Washington, their numbers have dropped during the pandemic. Ali Abuhamdeh owns ME Ultra Lounge in Vancouver and says he knows of two lounges in Portland and two in Seattle that closed in 2020. 

A man smokes with a hookah as he watches the football match between Belgium and Panama, in Ekaterinburg on June 18, 2018, during the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO/AFP via Getty Images)

Abuhamdeh is determined to get his business through to when things return to normal. 

“It’s been tough because there’s a lot of expenses, fixed expenses that we have to pay as far as rent, utilities, Comcast, things like that,” he explained. 

Abuhamdeh founded the business in 2012 and plans to keep it open much longer. He closed the private lounge on March 15, 2020. The lounge reopened for a few weeks in October, but closed again when coronavirus cases spiked and Washington issued another wave of shutdowns. 

Thankfully, Abuhamdeh has savings to fall back on and works a full-time job at a bank. He said that income helps pay the bills. 

Still, things haven’t been easy. Abuhamdeh feels hookah lounges are in a tougher situation than restaurants. 

“They had the option to take out, which… covers some of the fixed cost that they have to pay,” he said. “They’re probably not making as much, obviously, as we all know, but they actually, they have the opportunity to be open. They can do business somehow, but we can’t do that here.” 

Abuhamdeh is eagerly awaiting Phase 2 of Washington’s reopening plan, when he can operate at 25% capacity. That means 12 customers will be allowed inside. He’s already prepared with plexiglass shields in place, hand sanitizing stations, and disposable hookah hoses. 

Sign shows the COVID-19 rules inside ME Ultra Lounge, a hookah lounge in Vancouver, Wash., on Jan. 18, 2021. (KOIN)

He knows coughing is a common occurrence when people smoke hookah, but hopes the limited capacity and other safety measures will prevent the virus from spreading.

“Just abide by the rules and you know, keep people safe and do what we have to do to be open,” he said. 

Abuhamdeh said he already had one thing going for him before the pandemic – an excellent ventilation system. He said he invested $40,000 in a top-of-the-line ventilator when he moved the business into its current location off of Southeast 118th Avenue. When he installed it, he did so with the intention of clearing as much smoke from the room as possible. Now, he hopes it pays off by helping keep people safe. 

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