LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has released a pamphlet with guidance for street vendors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Only food vendors that have a valid health permit are allowed to offer food for off-site consumption or take-out, similar to restaurants," said Rudy Espinoza, Executive Director of Inclusive Action for the City.
Espinoza worked for more than a decade to legalize street vending. In 2018, street vending was legalized in Los Angeles and decriminalized in California.
“From the end of 2018, all through 2019, and the beginning of this year 2020, the city was developing its systems to onboard street vendors into the formal economy,” Espinoza said. “And just this year, in January 2020, a permit system was rolled out.”
Espinoza said the permit system was rolled out “haphazardly” since the education programs were still being ramped up. Vendors were also trying to figure out how to get their permits.
“Then in March of this year as everybody knows, we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and then a health order was put on, as shelter in place orders were put on, and vendors could not work," he said.
If unlicensed vendors continue operating when they’re not supposed to, it could result in fines of up to $1,000 per violation per day, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
Espinoza attended an L.A. City Council meeting a few weeks ago where it was announced that “they were able to license maybe 20 or 30 food vendors in the City of Los Angeles, not that many.” To put this in perspective, Espinoza said there are more than 50,000 street vendors in the region.
He said getting a permit from the health department is “a cumbersome process and it’s been like that for a while.”
While most businesses have been impacted by COVID-19, street vendors are especially vulnerable.
“Many of them are undocumented, and the federal assistance that is coming from our state and local authorities often isn't designed to support undocumented entrepreneurs,” he said.
Street vendors have been vocal about their struggles during the pandemic.
“About a month-and-a-half ago, we were hearing loud and clear from street vendors: They were stunned with no customers being out on the street and everybody sheltering in place, and that their income essentially dissipated and the policies coming down saying they couldn’t work," he said.
Since some street vendors will not benefit from stimulus checks or emergency loans, Inclusive Action for the City is trying to raise money for them. The organization put together a GoFundMe page titled “The Street Vendor Emergency Fund,” which has raised more than $90,000 so far from individual contribution.
“We put together The Street Vendor Emergency Fund because we knew that we had to get cash assistance to street vendors during this time, that the programs are not being designed for them,” he said. “And so this fund is getting $400 cash cards to street vendors. We’re prioritizing those folks who can’t get resources elsewhere, and they can use this card for whatever they need.”
Espinoza acknowledges that $400 doesn’t go far in L.A., but it’s better than nothing.
“I mean everybody realizes that $400 isn't going to take care of everything, but we hope it's a little flexible cash that they can use to help them during this time,” he said.
In addition to The Street Vendor Emergency Fund, Inclusive Action for the City has received major donations from the United Way’s Pandemic Relief Fund and the Roy + Patricia Disney Family Foundation. All in all, Inclusive Action for the City has raised more than $250,000.
“We have served almost 500 street vendors with $400 cash cards, so we're working hard and trying to raise money,” Espinoza said. “Giving is not enough. We can't just simply give and then go back to our daily lives. We have to give and make a phone call to your elected official, to your Congress member, and say, ‘Hey, we need to change our systems because these folks have been vulnerable for a long time.’”
Espinoza said the pandemic is “unmasking the systems that have already been hurting people.” He stresses the importance of donating money if possible and getting involved.
“Street vendors are our neighbors. They’re our family members. They make our streets dynamic and you know full of vitality. They are entrepreneurs that employ people locally. They shop at local stores. They generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity for our region.”
Espinoza dreams of an L.A. that works for everyone.
“I have believed firmly for a very long time that if you want to have a strong economy, we have to make sure we invest in these resilient people," he said.
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