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Street Food Vending Has Been Effectively Banned by the City of Los Angeles

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The LA City Council’s motion is in response to the novel coronavirus

A tray filled with Tacos El Venado tacos and salsas.
Tacos from Tacos El Venado
Tacos El Venado

It looks as though the most robust street food vending city in America could be without its taqueros, pupusa makers, and fruit cutters for the foreseeable future. Last night the Los Angeles City Council presented and passed a motion that effectively places a moratorium on street vending within city limits, stating during the evening that “it is necessary to impose a temporary moratorium on street vending in the public right of way to protect Angelenos from the novel coronavirus.”

There was (and remains) some confusion on what was formally adopted by the city council last night in its lengthy meeting, which began at 10 a.m. and went into the early evening. The council’s initial motion regarding street vending was set forth by City Councilmember Monica Rodriguez of the 7th District, which covers Pacoima, Sylmar, Sunland-Tujunga, North Hills, among others, and asked for an outright stoppage of all vending within city limits.

From there, a discussion followed about the city’s new street vending legalization, and what to do with those vendors who have applied for and received permitting both from the City to do business (388 vendors only, while there are tens of thousands of unlicensed vendors across Los Angeles County), and from the Health Department to serve food (less than the 388 vendors). Ultimately, an amended motion was passed that asked for two things simultaneously — “a temporary moratorium,” as before, and enforcement of the city’s existing “rules and regulations that prohibit street vending for food vendors who do not possess a valid health permit”. Both would be in effect for the “length of the current local emergency” around the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regardless of the language — a full moratorium or a crackdown on anyone who does not possess both a vending and a health permit — the motion effectively tasks the Los Angeles Police Department and Bureau of Street Services to force vendors to crack down on street vendors citywide. A spokesperson named Tran Le for Councilmember Rodriguez attempted to clarify later that the passed motion is not a moratorium, despite use of the word in the motion itself.

Reached for comment, a rep from Rodriguez’s office said:

Councilwoman Rodriguez believes that a full, temporary moratorium on street vending is necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19. That is why it is referenced in the preamble. However, this would require action by the Governor to supersede State law (SB 946). Therefore, what is in the actual instructions of the motion are directions to the departments for the City to act within its power to enforce unpermitted vending.

As it currently stands, because the motion does not require a new ordinance (it is simply requiring enforcement) it is effective immediately.

At issue, Rodriguez said during the meeting, is not the safety of the food but the vending setup, particularly those who “build large groups” around their stands. She later reportedly called them a “public hazard.”

Street vendor in 6th and Bonnie Brae, Los Angeles.
A nighttime street vendor
Wonho Frank Lee

It’s worth noting that the City Council does not have the same jurisdiction over the other 87 standalone cities in Los Angeles County, or in the unincorporated parts of the county, which is overseen by the board of supervisors — hence the need for LA County and the City of LA to separately call for an end to dine-in restaurants earlier this week. What’s more, the council’s motion obviously does not have jurisdiction over other counties in Southern California. At the state level, California Governor Gavin Newsom has so far allowed food trucks to continue to operate, though with some guidelines in place:

Food Trucks:

  • Increase frequency of cleaning of menus, cash registers, receipt trays, condiment holders, writing instruments and other non-food contact surfaces frequently touched by patrons and employees.
  • Ensure that social distancing of six feet per person for non-family members is maintained and make clear that family members can participate together, stand in line together, etc.
  • Limiting the number of people in lines.
  • Increase frequency of cleaning and sanitizing per CDC Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection guidance of all hard surfaces.
  • Remind employees of best hygiene practices including washing their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

It remains to be seen how implementation and enforcement at the city level will work, and how vendors would choose to take the mandate. Having worked for generations as a technically illegal but beloved operation, many of the nearly 50,000 countywide vendors may continue to feed people, particularly if they consider themselves a takeaway business only, like the thousands of other brick and mortar restaurants that turned to takeout and delivery only in the past week.

This story has been updated with a quote from Councilmember Rodriguez’s office.