Philly starts inspections of ‘stop-and-gos’ seeking to continue alcohol sales

After opening a sliding plexiglass door, Nasifa Erwin pours a shot for a customer at Olney Steak and Beer on North Broad Street.

After opening a sliding plexiglass door, Nasifa Erwin pours a shot for a customer at Olney Steak and Beer on North Broad Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Some corner-store owners in Philadelphia have until Friday to request a city inspection they now need to keep selling alcohol legally.

In December, City Council passed a controversial bill requiring these establishments, often called “beer delis” or “stop-and-gos,” to get a new category of restaurant license proving they comply with state liquor laws in an attempt to crack down on nuisance businesses.

To obtain that new city restaurant license, business owners must pass an “eligibility inspection” to determine whether there is a working bathroom and seating for at least 30 customers.

Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, said the inspections are scheduled to start next week and will take roughly a month to complete. As of Thursday, nearly 800 restaurants have requested an inspection, said Guss.

The new city regulations came as long-simmering tensions around stop-and-gos, especially in Philadelphia’s low-income neighborhoods, bubbled over in the fall. Community activists pressed state and city lawmakers for change, complaining about public drinking and crime in and around these businesses.

The original bill, introduced by Councilwoman Cindy Bass, would have required restaurants with 30 or more seats to remove the safety-glass barriers that separate customers from cashiers. Stop-and-go owners rallied against the so-called bulletproof glass bill, arguing it would result in dangerous working conditions. The final legislation says L&I has until 2021 to decide whether businesses must remove the barriers.

“That puts them in an impossible situation of having to choose between, well, are we going to protect ourselves and our family members and our employees and our customers with safety glass, or are we going to have to utilize some other method of giving our business the protection of life?” said Stephen Murphy, general counsel for the Asian-American Licensed Beverage Association.

Some stop-and-go owners have said they would be forced to arm themselves if they have to take down their bulletproof glass to stay in compliance with city and state law.

If L&I decided to ban safety glass, Guss said, owners could potentially have to decide between keeping it in place or selling alcohol.

Bass has said the dividers are an “indignity” that allow predatory businesses to thrive in already struggling communities.

“Some of the products that are sold — the things that are happening inside and outside their establishments and the things that I’ve witnessed myself — would lend themselves to a climate that is going to be negative, that’s going to be bringing negative people, negative actions,” said Bass in December, before the bill passed 14-3.

As the city prepares for weeks of inspections, state Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, has introduced legislation that would effectively block Philadelphia from forcing stop-and-go owners to take down their safety glass.

Stephens said that decision is not the city’s to make.

“Frankly, City Council ought to focus more time and energy on preventing the violence that these business owners are trying to protect themselves from,” said Stephens.

If enacted, the measure would allow business owners to protect against workplace violence any way they see fit, as long as it complies with federal or state law.

The legislation specifically points to “bulletproof or bullet-resistant windows or other obstructions, partitions or any other physical deterrent intended to provide for the protection of employees.”

Stephens said he doesn’t expect the bill to be taken up in committee until spring.

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