This Article was Updated December 3, 2107: Included provisions about bathrooms and added a new compromise.
Stop-and-Go Places, Plexiglass, and Cindy Bass’ War on Blight
There is nothing more infuriating than hearing about something at the last minute that impacts your life.
I despise opening this article with this, but I have to. I’m writing this on Saturday, December 2nd. On Monday, December 4th at 10 a.m. there’s a hearing about this issue. The bill itself was introduced a month ago on November 2nd. Yet it was only on November 25th, this past Monday, that one core provision of the bill came out, a provision which infuriated small-business owners around Philadelphia and right-wing media outlets across the country like The Blaze and Fox News.
The problem? The bill doesn’t do what they’re claiming.
The bill in question is Bill No. 170963, a bill with the intent of ending “Stop-and-Go” beer establishments. These establishments are in largely poor neighborhoods and take advantage of Pennsylvania liquor laws by claiming to sell food, despite the fact the majority of their sales are from alcohol and cigarettes with very little food being sold. They also have large bulletproof glass boxes between the owners and customers.
In an article with Philadelphia Magazine, Councilwoman Cindy Bass who created this legislation stated, “Kids can buy candy, soda, and snacks while adults buy liquor by the shot, black-and-milds, and other adult products,” Bass explains. “Children aren’t allowed in bars, so why should they be allowed in establishments that operate in this manner?”
The text of the bill, in simple terms, states that a “Large Establishment (or Large Restaurant) License” is given to any place that primary service is serving and selling food to be eaten both on and off the premises and provides seating for at least 30 customers. Or, in short, it states that a place that is licensed as a large sit-down restaurant is, in fact, an actual large sit-down restaurant.
Within the bill is a clause that states that any establishment that has a Large Establishment license may not “erect or maintain a physical barrier” in order to give them their food.
In other words, if you’re a restaurant, act like one and remove the bulletproof glass.
The criticisms of this bill has been focused on two arguments: People have said that the legislation seeks to “ban” stores from protecting themselves, and others have said it targets Asian store owners.
Does it really ban Bulletproof Glass and Target Asians?
The idea that this is a full ban plexiglass, aka bulletproof glass, is a mistake. The bill means the KFC at Broad and Girard would have to remove their glass barricades since they have seating if they have a large establishment license (and frankly, I hope they do), but it also means the small store that has decided to get its license so it can serve beer will be forced to either remove its glass or stop selling alcohol. Again, the majority of places that would be penalized or places that have used selling food as an excuse for serving alcohol. This also means that gas stations and most corner stores will not be affected, either.
That said, there are going to be places stuck in the middle. There are plenty of restaurants that have put up plexiglass in order to protect themselves from crime located around Philadelphia, including many small Chinese Food Restaurants in South Philadelphia. There are multiple restaurants that see if as their only line of defense, and that has to be noted as well.
That brings us to the second issue: That it targets Asian Business owners. Mike Choe who runs a nonprofit supporting Korean-owned businesses, said “I do think it’s a bad bill that will endanger Korean Americans.” When Councilwoman Cindy Bass was asked about the bill, she simply responded, “Absolutely not. I find that offensive.”
The reality is that a large number of these “stop-and-go” places have Asian owners, but my opinion is that coalition does not equal causation. It’s worth noting that another law has come under fire from the Asian community this year that limit business hours for restaurants in residential neighborhoods. The “11PM Ordinance” as it’s called was passed in 2005 and states a block is subject to the 11 p.m. law if it at least 80 percent of the block contains homes. The law’s intent was to limit nuisance properties and to make sure that places open past 11 p.m. weren’t attracting crime and causing problems.
Additionally, if someone were to make the argument that this would hurt local beer distillers, the majority of stop-and-go places are selling beer as cheap as possible and their customers are more likely to want a Budweiser or Miller rather than a Yards. But there is an argument to be made about classism here as well. The bill would target the poorest communities of Philadelphia in an attempt to help them, but would it have the desired result of raising the quality of living in these neighborhoods or would it instead see many stores shuttered due to many stores unable, or unwilling, to adapt to the stricter interpretation of the law?
Bathrooms are Involved
Also in the bill is a requirement that all restaurants have public restrooms if they fit within the plumbing code. It also acts as a secondary enforcement tool and has been lost in all of this discussion. The bill states that both small and large restaurants must have a public restroom, which could be the biggest thing in this bill. Many stop-and-go locations do not have any sort of public restroom and that may actually cause most of these locations to close more than anything else. In fact, the “bulletproof glass” aspect of the bill may actually be a MacGuffin, a distraction from that fact that the bathroom requirement alone may force many of these “stop-and-go” places to shut down since they wouldn’t meet that requirement.
How did we get here?
For the past few years various Registered Community Organizations (RCO’s) in Northwest Philadelphia, which incorporates Mt. Airy, Germantown, West Oak Lane, Cheltenham, and Chestnut Hill, have come out against places with these barriers along with all “stop-and-go” locations in general. They see them as blights to their communities since they offer cheap beer in high poverty neighborhoods, helping to keep the communities mired in poverty instead of helping them rise above it.
The push to end “stop-and-go” locations heated up this past summer when Councilwoman Bass began her “Fit 30?” campaign. Her and a small group of people would show up at local businesses that advertised cheap beer and available food and then set up to see if they actually were following the law. That same summer legislation was introduced that would allow for video game gambling terminals in bars and stores that sell liquor. Cindy Bass, in an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, said that it could prompt more “stop-and-go” locations to open up. In October a massive gambling bill passed the Pennsylvania State House to become law, but the provision to allow bars to have gambling was removed. But her campaign did show that multiple businesses were, in fact, skirting the law in order to sell beer.
Caught in the Cross-Hairs
Earlier I mentioned the KFC at Broad and Girard, a small fast-food restaurant that has the barrier between customers and patrons despite selling no alcohol and being in an area that has been plagued with crime for a very long time. For those living in parts of the city with few options for anything from food to ATM’s, the story is very different.
In some parts of Philadelphia, places some would consider a “stop-and-go” are, in reality, corner stores servicing various needs from bill payments to a quick bite to eat. In the area there may be no other places that have these services and alcohol is the lifeblood that allows them to continue to operate and compete against other small corner stores that just sell food. Additionally, with the sugary drink tax that was leveled earlier this year (in part thanks to the same Councilwoman who was one of its champions), these same small businesses may fall under the weight of the pressure.
This leads rise to a new question: Will we see multiple stores go under in blighted neighborhoods without anything new to come in? Could this measure, in fact, have the opposite effect?
So what’s next?
The intent of the bill is to make sure that places that call themselves large restaurants are actually restaurants and to get rid of “stop-and-go” places that only claim to be restaurants only so they’re able to sell beer. The problem is that some small businesses that may have just simply gotten the wrong license that don’t serve alcohol will be caught in the cross-hairs as well.
The best way to fix this issue is to implement some sort of stop-gap that allows businesses to fix the issues while looking out for their safety and making sure locations aren’t blights to their communities. To that end, I recommend allowing any place that is a large restaurant that doesn’t serve alcohol an amnesty period of a year to allow them to re-license their business as a small establishment for free with the goal of trying to get them to limit the amount of barrier they use. That could be done through community partnerships with RCO’s and other neighborhood groups, reducing the need for bureaucratic solutions.
Additionally, allow businesses that want to abandon alcohol sales and scale-down the same forgiveness, but with any and all past fines related to violations from the previous year due up-front. This creates an incentive for them to do the right thing while, at the same time, showing that there is still a penalty for their previous crimes. It wouldn’t be full amnesty, but it shows some way of trying to work with them.
One additional idea I would propose is that any business that says it can hold 30 people must have it readily available upon entrance. That means not putting it in the back of the store and discouraging people from using it, and instead requiring that the space is open at all times to customers. That in and of itself would force these businesses to attain the proper license and, if needed, change their business.
Of final note, I would say doing away with the plexiglass provision altogether may make some sense IF the other provisions I mentioned are put in. If places that are licensed to hold 30 people or more are held properly accountable, the likelihood of them having that glass is nearly zero. There will be some outliers, but by and large the provision of the bathrooms already in the bill, as well as the additional requirement of seating I mentioned, would actually solve the issue of stop-and-go’s themselves.
The short-term effect of this legislation will be some businesses will have to close, and that needs to be acknowledged. Many of these locations will not be able to adapt to the loss of beer sales, and others will not be willing to remove their barriers in order to keep selling beer. Others may close due to being caught in the middle even if exceptions are created. The long-term effects will be a reduction in places that have fostered blight and have been nuisance businesses in the past and we may see the places that adapt foster and become better restaurants and stores. The free market may foster more and new businesses to help make up the difference and help small business owners in those neighborhoods a chance to start and even expand their own businesses.