Hearing advocates at a public hearing Tuesday praised a proposal that would require Minneapolis music venues to carry free earplugs, but downtown’s best-known nightclub is not on board.

After the hearing, a City Hall committee unanimously approved the ordinance, which would supply about 185 bars and clubs that generally offer amplified music for concerts or dancing with privately funded earplugs. It goes to the full council next week.

Supporters have trumpeted the need to raise awareness about hearing loss, a growing problem among younger Americans. “This is good government,” said Council Member Jacob Frey, sponsor of the ordinance. “We’re tackling something that has flown under the radar for a generation or two.”

But First Avenue, a popular night spot, opposes the idea. Even though the earplugs would come at no cost to clubs or taxpayers, First Avenue says the requirement cuts into its profits from selling about 10,000 pairs of earplugs a year, making about $4,000 for the club.

Testifying on behalf of First Avenue and other clubs that sell earplugs, Carol Lynn Miller said that any revenue loss is “unacceptable,” particularly with the potential for the state to pass a higher minimum wage. “It’s difficult for us to find additional areas for revenue,” testified Miller, director of operations at the Seville Club.

Reached after the hearing, First Avenue general manager Nate Kranz said music venues operate on thin margins.

“We take a lot of risks putting on bands. And the bands make the lion’s share of money,” he said in a phone interview. “So we’re reliant on finding other sources of revenue that sort of add up to being a profitable business. And earplugs are certainly one of them.”

Frey responded that the cost to First Avenue had to be counterbalanced with the public health impact. “When you’re talking about all the medical costs, the insurance costs … of going to the doctor when you have substantial hearing loss, I think the benefit necessarily outweighs the cost,” he said.

Local clothing manufacturer Brian Felsen, who runs the company Locally Grown, Globally Known, came up with the idea to offer the earplugs to clubgoers in conjunction with Miracle Ear and 3M. The companies will be paying for and suppling the devices, which are manufactured by 3M.

Felsen, who carries a specially wired dummy to show the volume of sound from earbuds, noted that the ordinance actually ensures customers can return to the venues over the long term.

“We’re not here to take away their revenue,” he said. “We’re hoping to make the experience of their patrons more comfortable and exciting.”

Elliot Miller of New Hope said he experienced hearing loss after fixing tanks during Operation Desert Storm. He and his son also experienced hearing problems after tractor pulls at the Metrodome.

“This is going to benefit the public,” he testified. “We are going to be at the forefront in the United States. This is an opportunity for the city of Minneapolis to step forward. It’s a no brainer. It’s at no cost.”

Modern research into hearing loss shows that even when loud noise does not affect a person’s ability to hear soft sounds, it can make it harder to distinguish sounds in a noisy atmosphere, according to hearing expert Bert Schlauch at the University of Minnesota.

Schlauch co-authored a study showing that earplugs do have an impact when worn at concerts.

“Providing earplugs at these venues, I think it’s an important consideration,” he told the committee.


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