Street food vendors have been cleared to participate in Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti’s much-publicized LA Al Fresco initiative, aimed at keeping diners outdoors and in public spaces like sidewalks and parking lots for the duration of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The new initiative, however, still only applies to those vendors that are fully permitted to sell food in the public right of way — meaning fewer than 50 vendors in total can participate, out of a reported 10,000 vendors countywide.
In late May, Garcetti’s Al Fresco initiative was followed with sustained criticism and protests from vendors who felt they were being left out of the citywide business reopening discussion. Today’s announcement is meant as an acknowledgement of the rights of vendors to serve food in conjunction with — and on equal footing with — standalone restaurants; but without full permitting from the Los Angeles County health department and the city, it still leaves the vast majority of vendors without legal status.
“Our small businesses are the backbones of our economic strength,” Garcetti said in a statement sent to Eater earlier today when asked about the planned introduction of vendors. “LA Al Fresco is focused on backing those bearing the brunt of COVID-19, giving Angelenos more places to safely gather and dine, supporting our workforce, and revitalizing the beating hearts of our communities.”
At the time of the first LA Al Fresco announcement in May, Garcetti’s plan only included licensed restaurants as well as bars that served food from an approved vendor. The language in the mayor’s address called for for an “immediate” expansion of indoor dining areas onto streets and public thoroughfares, with a limited approval process and rapid, no-cost response from city officials. So far, more than 550 restaurants have been approved under that first phase.
Vendors, meanwhile, have been criminalized for generations for doing the exact same thing (selling food in public spaces) and only won the right to legally vend in January 2019, though a full framework that granted licenses in LA was only initialized starting in 2020. Despite legalization, gaining a street vending license is both expensive and cumbersome, with only 48 vendors carrying such licenses as of June 2020. A proposed city council-led plan would create a $5 million emergency fund to support vendor legalization efforts.
Black and brown communities, and poorer communities across the United States, have faced a significantly higher rates of COVID-19 cases to date. Most vendors in Los Angeles County are women of color — many of them immigrants (including thousands of undocumented workers) — earning less than $10,000 per year.
The new Al Fresco structure will allow for licensed street vendors and restaurants both to pull 90-day permits that come complete with barricades, planters, and other design details to use in approved spaces, and will give those permit-holders free access to one of dozens of architecture and design firms to help adapt their spaces more thoroughly. Half of the approved applications are being held for BIPOC-owned businesses and/or restaurants “in areas that have suffered the greatest job losses due to COVID-19,” the mayor’s office says. Vendors and restaurants can apply for permits through the LA Al Fresco website now.
A March ordinance passed overwhelmingly by the Los Angeles City Council subjected vendors to stricter enforcement and even closure by the Bureau of Street Services and Los Angeles Police Department throughout the city’s stay-at-home orders. Several council members, including Joe Buscaino and Monica Rodriguez, have previously called for an official amendment to that ordinance now that restaurants have reopened for dine-in service.
“We were disappointed that the mayor and the various departments didn’t consider vendors” in the previous LA Al Fresco announcement, says Rudy Espinoza, executive director of Inclusive Action, an economic development nonprofit that works with street vendors, “because they use the public right of way to make a living.” However, Espinoza stressed, the addition of only the 48 fully approved new vendors does not go far enough.
Part of the problem rests with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. “The county health department does not have an adequate system to permit the sidewalk vendors that we all know and love,” Espinoza says. “What they’re asking for is education, they’re asking for access, and they’re looking for affordable carts” that can be approved for use by the county. Currently, many of those details remain in long-term limbo.
Espinoza’s office and other organizations like San Francisco’s Latino Community Foundation have worked for years to make legal street vending a reality, including hosting virtual events and raising funds for vendors hit hard by the current pandemic.
“How are we going to educate vendors about Al Fresco?” asks Espinoza. “We know, based on our numbers, that last year Streets LA (the city’s Bureau of Street Services) asked for $350,000 for vendor education citywide, and they asked for $8 million for enforcement. What is the priority here? Is it criminalization and citations, or is it education?”