Despite strong opposition from Asian American beer deli owners and their supporters, Philadelphia City Council voted, 14-3, Thursday to approve a bill that most members said would enhance neighborhoods, but that the merchants fear could jeopardize their safety and livelihood.
Mayor Kenney’s office said he would sign the bill.
City Councilwoman Cindy Bass introduced the bill Nov. 2 as part of an effort to rid the city of what she has called illegal stop-and-go outlets. Although much of the bill involves categorizing food establishments by size for city licensing purposes, one paragraph generated huge protests and polarized communities, exposing fissures involving race, class, and perceptions of immigrants.
That paragraph called for banning bullet-resistant windows in large food establishments. Beer deli owners were affected because state law requires them to have at least 30 seats. Many of the owners, who are largely Asian American, decried the bill, saying removing the safety windows would expose them to being robbed, injured, or killed. But Bass called such windows, which separate food servers from customers, “an indignity.”
On Dec. 4, Council’s Committee on Public Health and Human Services amended the bill, removing the mandatory window ban on large establishments, and instead instructing the Department of Licenses and Inspections to issue by Jan. 1, 2021, regulations for “the use or removal of any physical barrier” in places that serve food and alcohol. The amended bill was unanimously approved that day by the committee.
But beer deli owners and their supporters still saw the amended bill as risking their lives.
Just before the full Council vote Thursday, Bass said the bill was a culmination of 25 years of work to eliminate stop-and-go outlets that sell drug paraphernalia, fruit-flavored cigarillos, and candy for children next to alcohol for adults. “Sometimes they sell food. Mostly they don’t,” she said. “They aren’t delis. … They’re the modern-day pusher.”
“We’re going to say goodbye to the breakfast-booze spots,” she said, to some applause.
Hundreds of beer deli owners and their supporters showed up Thursday to protest the bill. During a public-comment period before the vote, Council President Darrell L. Clarke said he was allowing 10 people on each side to speak against, then for, the bill.
When Adam Xu, chairman of the Asian American Licensed Beverage Association, who has been a vocal opponent of the bill, approached a microphone to speak, he was told he could not do so because 10 people already had spoken against the bill.
Mouy Chheng, the first to speak against, said her 19-year-old son was fatally shot by two armed robbers at the family’s South Philly convenience store in 2003 when it did not have a bullet-resistant window.
Peter Ly, a West Philly beer deli owner who made news after he was shot three times in December 2011 when he went to deposit money at a Cheltenham bank, told Council of another incident a decade ago when he was shot six times during a gunpoint robbery at a beer deli he then owned on Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia with no bullet-resistant window. He has a partition in his current business.
“If you take down my bulletproof glass,” he said, “I will not be lucky next time.”
City Councilman David Oh, a Korean American who has opposed the bill specifically because business owners could be ordered to remove their safety-glass windows, said he feared removing them could increase crime and cause more proprietors to buy guns. “I will not expose [beer deli owners] or anyone else to the risk that they could be killed,” he said.
Oh and Council members Allan Domb and Mark Squilla voted against the bill.
Although many of the bill’s opponents were Asian American and many supporters African American, not every speaker’s position was predictable by race.
The Rev. Robert Shine, an African American who is pastor of Berachah Baptist Church on Limekiln Pike in East Germantown, asked Council to reconsider the section of the bill dealing with protective windows. Removing the windows “would certainly expose proprietors to greater hazards or dangers,” he said.
And Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Korean American, voted for the bill, eliciting boos from beer deli owners and applause from African American residents.
The bill seeks to address “irresponsible businesses” that promote addictions, she said. “At its heart,” she said, the amended bill seeks “to reject predatory practices that have hurt black and brown communities. This bill only targets the small fraction of businesses” that are not operating legally, she said.
Also speaking in support of the bill was Asa Khalif, a leader of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania. “Stop-and-gos have always been a thorn in the side of black and brown communities. … Finally, black and brown people say enough is enough,” he said.
Rochelle Bilal, a retired Philadelphia police officer and president of the Guardian Civic League, an organization of black Philadelphia police officers, said a lot of beer delis “are a scourge” on neighborhoods. She said the bill was not about the partition windows, but “about human decency.”
Xu, the head of the beer deli group, which now represents 245 businesses, held a news conference across from City Hall before the hearing, standing with Chheng, the mother whose 19-year-old son, Luckily Ky, was killed in 2003. Xu said in a message to Council members: “You want to kill more people?”
Three African American men also spoke at the news conference, including Linwood Holland, chairman of the Philadelphia Black Republican Ward Leaders Caucus. “Bodies are not bulletproof, so we need this glass to protect everybody,” Holland said.
Mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Hitt, in a statement Tuesday, said the mayor planned to sign the bill if Council were to pass it Thursday. “To be clear,” she wrote, “the bill does not require the removal of plexiglass — it gives L&I three years to convene a diverse group of stakeholders to decide how the plexiglass issue is to be handled — that could mean L&I ultimately decides to leave the plexiglass as is, to remove it completely, or something in between.”
Asked if beer deli owners would be part of the group of stakeholders, she replied: “Of course.”