Would you feel safe with an illegal liquor store next door to you, selling shots of cheap booze at 10 a.m. to loitering alcoholics? That's what my bill debated last week by a City Council committee is about. Unfortunately, the bill has been mischaracterized by the people who run those stores – people who are exploiting a loophole in state law and hurting the neediest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
And it's all too easy to mischaracterize my bill, because state laws on alcohol are complicated. In Pennsylvania, private owners can't operate liquor stores. That's what the state Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores do. But private owners can run restaurants that sell alcohol to their customers to drink while they eat.
How does the state define a restaurant? It's an establishment that prepares and serves food for consumption on the premises, and that has tables and chairs for 30 or more patrons. Fair enough.
Unfortunately, "stop-and-go" outlets – which are now trying to rebrand themselves as "beer delis" – have popped up in many poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia. They sell bottles of beer to drink off premises and shots of liquor for people to drink on the spot. Oh, and they also sell candy-flavored cigarillos to get kids hooked on smoking and big boxes of cold medicines that can be turned into street drugs, but they don't sell much else.
The U.S. Public Health Service has determined that having a large number of liquor outlets in a neighborhood increases excessive drinking and violence in that neighborhood. And the stop-and-go stores in Philadelphia are indeed cancers on their neighborhoods, attracting drunkenness, loitering, noise, disorder, crime, and violence.
I invite any official or community leader who doesn't believe this to join me in my district on a tour of these places. I've done quite a few of these tours, and afterwards not a single person defends them.
The stop-and-go stores have state liquor licenses as if they were restaurants, but they're not even close. They are in fact liquor outlets. They don't have 30 seats; most don't have any. They don't prepare or serve food; if you ask, most will show you a single plastic cup of dried Ramen noodles. But for years the ineffective state Liquor Control Board has turned a blind eye to the stop-and-gos' blatant disregard for the law.
So what can the city do to protect its neighborhoods from this blight?
Legally, the city cannot regulate alcohol sales. But it can set standards for restaurants, and outlets must maintain restaurant licenses to keep their liquor licenses.
And so my bill would define a large establishment – large enough to have a liquor license – to be a real restaurant, aligning the definition with state law. Under the bill, a large restaurant must have a minimum of 30 seats for customers and at least one customer-accessible bathroom. And as it was originally drafted, the bill would prohibit an interior acrylic glass barrier between customers and staff. True restaurants don't have a problem with any of these requirements. When was last time you sat at a table at an actual restaurant for a meal – but had to pick up your food through a filthy hole in an interior acrylic glass wall?
My bill also creates a definition for small establishments, like take out restaurants and convenience stores that sell sandwiches. These places have fewer than 30 seats, and under the bill they could have acrylic glass barriers. As the state law is written, they wouldn't be eligible for liquor licenses.
The stop-and-go owners are complaining that my bill would force them to take down their acrylic glass wall. That's just false. What the bill simply does is require them to be honest and follow the state law: either become true restaurants (with 30 or more seats) that sell alcohol to customers dining on-site, or admit that they are small convenience stores and stop selling alcohol. The ones that are convenience stores can keep their acrylic glass walls.
The rules are simple and fair. They align with state laws. And they protect both the store owners and the neighborhoods around them.
In the end, that's what the bill is about: neighborhood safety. I think it's the right thing to do. And if others object, ask them if they are ready for that liquor store to open up next door.
Cindy Bass is a Philadelphia City Council representative in the 8th District. @cindybassphilly
Editor's note: This story was updated Dec. 11, 2017, to remove the word "plexiglass" to avoid any reference to the trademarked Plexiglas® product.