By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — State leaders have pledged to rein in convenience stores that are the site of drug dealing, prostitution and public drunkenness in the city.
Members of Philadelphia’s legislative delegation will propose new regulations for establishments where alcohol is sold, typically referred to as “stop-and-gos,” during the upcoming negotiations on the budget, which is due by June 30. The state prevents municipalities from regulating retail establishments that sell alcohol.
State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, said the new regulations will target irresponsible business owners who make neighborhoods less safe.
“We’re coming for you and we’re going to make changes that are going to affect the way you operate within our communities,” he said.
Williams spoke during the first gathering of the Nuisance Establishment Task Force, which met on Monday at the Yesha Grand Ballroom in South Philadelphia. The task force, which he led, brought together state and city leaders, law enforcement and activists.
Among the proposals put forward were:
- Creating a new liquor license classification for stop-and-gos;
- Reducing the amount of liquor licenses in Philadelphia;
- Creating a smartphone app that would allow the public to report violations; and
- Requiring businesses with liquor licenses to provide a public restroom.
But city leaders wanted more.
Thomas Farley, the city’s Health Commissioner, called on state legislators to give greater authority to municipalities to take actions that would lead to the revocation of liquor licenses.
“These are real problems in communities and we would like to be able to have the stop-and-gos either come into compliance and be more like a real restaurant or, frankly go out of business,” Farley said.
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said neighborhoods remained overburdened with liquor establishments. She was frustrated that complaints filed against nuisance businesses led nowhere.
“We can’t seem to close some of these folks down,” she said.
Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents the 7th District, called on the state to redefine space and food regulations, and to inspect the businesses before their licenses are renewed.
Stop-and-gos, which include convenience stores and delis where alcohol is sold, must acquire a state license that requires they include seating and tables for at least 30 people and sell food. Access to a public restroom is not a requirement.
However, many establishments operate outside of the law by not providing enough seating or serving food.
While the state can temporarily suspend an establishment’s license, the business can remain open and quickly come back into compliance, said Tisha Albert, director of regulatory affairs for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
“So, short of legislation, we don’t really have much of a choice but to give them back [their licenses] because of due process,” she said.
Liquor licenses go up for renewal every two years, in October.
It is difficult to revoke an establishment’s license, and the revocation can be appealed.
“It is a long process,” said Rodrigo Diaz, chief counsel for the PLCB, about the revocation process.
In late 2017, state legislators strengthened the PLCB’s authority to crack down on stop-and-gos and nuisance bars. The legislation allowed the PLCB to conduct more inspections and immediately suspend the liquor license of establishments that are out of compliance.
The state has suspended the liquor licenses of at least 54 establishments since January 2018. Compliance investigations, which are conducted by the state police, are complaint-driven. Reports of violations are rare and there are no backlog of compliance complaints with the state.
The Philadelphia City Council reformed its own code regulating restaurants in 2017 in an attempt to address stop-and-gos.
The city classifies small food establishments as having 29 or fewer seats, while large food establishments must have 30 or more seats and require public access to a bathroom.
Yet Farley admitted those reforms have fallen short.
“That attempt only went so far and has ultimately not led to the closure or real fundamental changes in a lot of stop-and-gos in the city,” he said, adding: “So, we clearly have a bigger problem than what we can handle just as the health department in the city.”
Yvonne Sawyer, an activist who took part in the task force, said stop-and-go delis in her West Philadelphia neighborhood attracted prostitution, drug dealing and garbage.
“We don’t need it in our community,” she said. “It has to stop.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.