County social worker Lori Loncharek just wanted to find a shady spot to take a break from work and have a smoke. But on Friday, finding that place was not as easy as it had been the day before.

"I think I can be here," she said uncertainly, leaning against the corner of a parking ramp and looking across the street at the Hennepin County Government Center. "It's very confusing.

"I'm still smoking, and I'm going to smoke, but I don't know where to smoke."

Friday was the first day of Hennepin County's ban on smoking and tobacco use anywhere on county-owned property in downtown Minneapolis. The ban includes the outdoor plaza, greenspace, parking ramps and lots and even vehicles parked in those areas. It will spread to libraries, suburban county sites and county-leased properties later this year.

Overnight, white signs warning "No tobacco use anywhere on property" had popped up on the Government Center lawn and light posts. But Loncharek said that when she asked a county security guard where she could smoke, the response was so complicated that she was confused.

"It was something about being on the corners," she said.

The new policy was approved in March, part of a drive to eliminate second-hand smoke and litter from county property. Olmsted County, home of the Mayo Clinic and Rochester, has the state's strictest ban, prohibiting smoking on all county- and city-owned property. But Hennepin is home to about one-fifth of the state's residents, and thousands of people visit county buildings every day.

'Best judgment' for violators

Hennepin County security manager Kirk Simmons is in charge of policing the tobacco ban. An ex-smoker himself, he said one or two security guards will patrol the county's downtown properties for at least a couple of weeks to help people get used to the new policy.

"I've told people to use their best judgment," he said. "I don't want us chasing people down if they're walking across the street or leaving the property. ... We've told security staff to deal with it as if people had never heard of it."

By late afternoon, 92 smokers had been told they had to leave five downtown county locations, Simmons said. All were cooperative.

County employees have been well-briefed on the new policy, and those who repeatedly violate it could be subject to discipline, Simmons said. While most employees have been philosophical about the change, a few hard-core smokers have resisted even previous rules that required them to smoke at least 45 feet from building entrances.

Last year, Simmons said, a bike messenger reported that smoking county employees had so jammed one building entrance that he had no place to leave his bike. When the messenger complained, the employees covered their badges, blew smoke in his face, stubbed cigarette butts out on the seat of his bike and fled, Simmons said.

On Friday, several county employees taking smoke breaks across the street from the Government Center declined to comment on the new policy. One of them rolled her eyes and frowned .

"My mouth will get me in trouble," she said.

But Rich Benson, a computer consultant who works with the county, said the new policy makes sense. Cigarette butts still littered the ground near the Government Center bench where he was reading at lunchtime.

"I hate smoking," he said. "It smells, it's unhealthy, and I don't like to feel that I have to put up with it. They can still do it -- where no one else has to tolerate it."

Bob McCune, who works for the city of Minneapolis, used to sometimes take a smoke break on the Government Center plaza across from City Hall. On Friday, he had migrated across the street to a shady corner outside the U.S. Bank building.

McCune, a smoker for 50 years, called the new county policy "ludicrous" and said it was "politically motivated to think second-hand smoke does any damage. If it did, people would be dying by the millions.

"I'll just come to this good shaded spot," he said. "It's the private sector, and they haven't been able to intrude here yet."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380