Sidewalk vending ordinance passes final reading; critics call the rules hostile toward immigrants, possibly illegal

Regulations adopted Thursday evening effectively ban street food vendors in the busiest areas of downtown during certain times. Critics say the rules are discriminatory and harm immigrant business owners.
A fruit cart vendor operates outside the Palm Springs Walmart earlier this year.

Street food vendors now have final clarity about where, when, and how they can operate their businesses in the city after the Palm Springs City Council voted 4-1 to approve a new set of regulations governing their operations Thursday evening. The rules could face a legal challenge.

Councilmember Lisa Middleton cast the sole no vote against the ordinance, first introduced almost a year ago in response to a 2018 state law that protects sidewalk vendors from being criminally charged for violations and prevents cities from banning them outright. 

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“There have been concerns that even if the city does adopt regulations, that we won’t be able to enforce them,” said Deputy City Manager Flinn Fagg, acknowledging some worries about the ordinance. Fagg assured the council that code compliance officers are available on the weekend until 1 a.m. and the police department is available after 1 a.m.

He also confirmed that representatives from Riverside County Environmental Health will periodically conduct inspections of vendors.

The new regulations require sidewalk vendors to obtain a business license from the city, liability insurance, a Health Department permit if they’re preparing or selling food, and all employees must have a food handler’s card. The vendors aren’t allowed to set up tables, chairs, or large signs.

In addition, the vendors can set up shop in public parks and along public sidewalks only if they leave 48 inches of accessible pathway. There are also restrictions on sidewalk vendors too close to business entrances and farmers markets.

The regulations effectively ban street food vendors in the busiest areas of downtown on Palm Canyon Drive and Arenas Road from Friday through Sunday from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. between Oct. 1 and April 30.

The new regulations are not without their critics. Representatives of multiple immigrant rights organizations spoke at Thursday’s meeting, urging council members to delete portions of the regulations restricting operating hours and locations, saying the rules were discriminatory and harmed immigrant business owners.

“The exclusions created in the downtown area are not adequately justified and signal economic protection and hostility against vendors that is prohibited under state law,” said Lyzzeth Mendoza, the economic justice organizing director for the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice. 

“These areas are the most commercially desirable locations for sidewalk vendors and should be areas where the city works to create infrastructure and find reasonable ways for vendors to exist.” 

In a letter to the city sent earlier this week, Juan Espinoza, an Equal Justice Works Fellow who has litigated on behalf of sidewalk vendors, said that using increased pedestrian and vehicle traffic as a justification for the restriction of vendors from the popular downtown areas are not objective and could put the city in violation of state law.

Espinoza also criticized the requirement for insurance, saying it puts an undue burden on the vendors. He pointed out that other cities, including Long Beach, don’t require liability insurance, while others reduced the coverage to $300,000.

“This language signals an unwelcoming disposition by the City of Palm Springs towards vendors and is contrary to how many flourishing cities throughout the world operate in support of street vendors,” Espinoza wrote.

Despite the request for revisions to the ordinance, it will be effective in 30 days. Fagg laid out the implementation plan, explaining that he had convened three meetings so far with representatives from the county, the city’s planning department, the finance department – which issues business licenses – and the police department.

He said that known vendors in the city will be sent a letter with information about the ordinance and that the city will aid them in the application and licensing process.

Fagg said the city already has its first street vendor licensee, and they will be setting up shop in Demuth Park.

Once the ordinance is in place, Fagg said how street vendors integrate into the city will be an ongoing process. Code compliance had recommended special events centered on sidewalk vendors and food trucks and creating street vending zones in other downtown areas and parks.

Mayor Grace Garner said the council will actively adapt ideas once the ordinance is in place and will look at nearby cities grappling with the issue. 

“I want to be mindful that the city of LA is going to trial soon on this issue,” said Garner. “It will be important for our legal team to be watching that.”


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