Dignity under glass: The bulletproof deli debate | Dom Giordano

Hundreds, including Ying Xiao, who owns a beer deli, gather inside City Council Chambers on Dec. 4, 2017 to rally against a bill introduced by Councilwoman Cindy Bass that would force beer deli owners to take down protective safety windows in their establishments. The bill was being discussed by the Committee on Public Health and Human Services, of which Bass is the chair. (Clem Murray/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Last week my wife and I attended an Italian-American event in Ocean City that we attend every year. Many of the people there moved from South Philly to the shore and still follow my show. Almost every person wanted to know what will happen next with Philadelphia City Councilwoman Cindy Bass’ plan to remove bulletproof glass from delis that serve beer in high crime neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Even though they have moved 90 miles from the city, they are livid about this.


I have had Bass twice on my show on this subject and she ultimately said this matter was basically boiled down to “indignity.” She focused on the indignity of residents of many Philadelphia neighborhoods getting their food through a circular device embedded in the glass. This point was followed by arguments that the store owners don’t engage their customers and don’t engage the community.


The councilwoman also challenged the notion that many of the neighborhoods in question are high crime areas. She also cited businesses near the delis that don’t use bulletproof glass. When I advanced the market argument that if people don’t like the atmosphere in the stores, then they should take their business elsewhere. Could it be these stores serve an essential need in many neighborhoods?


These arguments will not stop Philadelphia City Council from voting overwhelmingly today for the Bass’ bill. Those who vote for it by the notion that the “feelings” of those offended trumps the safety issues of those who own the businesses. Of these council members reject the rights of a business owner to determine how to run his business. Philadelphia’s city government routinely feels that they can micromanage any business in any way they see fit.


There are even some members of City Council that are saying that the plexiglass enclosures are not cosmetically pleasing. Maybe City Council can institute and commission a bureau of interior designs and window treatments. Perhaps Inquirer architecture columnist Inga Saffron could provide ideas on how to make plexiglass look charming. How about getting Craig LaBan to review the foods served at the delis and if he gives a thumbs down then the deli shuts down?


In an interview with one of the Asian-American leaders of the delis, he referenced OSHA as a government entity backing the merchants. I researched it and OSHA in a pamphlet entitled “Recommendations for Workplace Violence Prevention Programs in Late-Night Retail Establishments” endorses “Installing physical barriers such as bullet-resistant enclosures with pass-through windows between customers and workers.” This was the directive of the 2009 Obama Administration OSHA and therefore probably not a directive that was meant to increase “indignity.”


There have already been developments before a vote on the bill. State Representative Todd Stephens of Montgomery County called my radio show to say that he many the merchants are his constituents and he is putting together a state law to address the Philadelphia and the merchants to keep the glass.

Pauline Lim, who with her husband Alex, owns the Sunrise Deli on Allegheny Avenue in North Philly told the Inquirer that a man recently yelled to her from the other side of the bullet-resistant window, saying “You’re lucky. Wait until that glass comes down.” The man was angry because he didn’t have enough money to pay for the $1.50 beer.


The other development is that a new state law takes effect in January that will make it easier to fine or shut down delis that violate the law. This should be enough to stop the delis that are neighborhood nuisances.


However, this battle is about more than violations.  It is about the indignity issues that Bass has raised and a cultural battle with Asian merchants in minority neighborhoods. I raised the issue with Bass that banks, check-cashing places, even fast food places in Philadelphia also use protective glass. They apparently don’t cause indignity, however.


How does all this play out? Philadelphia City Council passes the bill and a fight ensues with the state over it. People who have fled Philadelphia, like those I referenced at the Ocean City event and those who are considering leaving, will see Philadelphia as something to be avoided at all costs. I guess we can tell them that avoiding Philadelphia is an attack on our dignity and we won’t allow that.