New York City street vendors would stand out at any of the Tea Party meetings that have been taking place across the country. Almost all of them are immigrants. They don't carry guns. And they don't believe in conspiracies about 9/11 or Obama's birth certificate. But one thing is for sure. Like members of the Tea Party, street vendors mostly just want the government to leave them alone.
Shirajul Islam is a good example. He's an immigrant from Bangladesh who has sold roasted peanuts in Lower Manhattan for the last twelve years. He's an American citizen who pays his taxes and supports his wife and four children. Two weeks ago, he left his peanut cart to use the bathroom at a nearby bookstore. In fact, he has a tumor on his colon, which makes him leave the cart more frequently than average. When he returned, after twenty minutes, health inspectors had taken a razor blade and scratched off his permit.
Without his permit, Shirajul can't work. He's been staying home the last two weeks, waiting for the Health Department to schedule him a new inspection. That process usually takes about a month.
Under Mayor Bloomberg, the Health Department has passed some positive reforms. They got rid of smoking in bars and restaurants. They've made chain restaurants post their calorie counts. They banned trans fat, and now they're working to reduce salt in our diets.
But the Health Department also has an enforcement arm that spends most of its time hassling street vendors - our smallest businesses. Last year, over objection from our organization, they passed a new rule making it illegal for vendors to leave their carts unattended. Even for five minutes. Even for a minute. Even to go to the bathroom.
Somebody at the Health Department obviously wasn't thinking - vendors are unusually hard-working and resilient, but they still have to go to the bathroom, like everyone else. In fact, it's ironic that the Health Department would be the agency to make this rule: if vendors are afraid to leave their carts, they will surely be endangering their health. We already see many cases of urinary tract problems from vendors who do not have convenient restroom access. This new rule will make things much worse.
The Health Department's rationale for the new rule is food security. Apparently they're concerned that a "food terrorist" will put anthrax in a vendor's food when he or she steps away to use the bathroom. But surely there are easier ways to poison the population of New York. Why wait for a vendor to leave when you can walk into any deli and sprinkle something on the salad bar?
Street vendors aren't asking for any hand-outs. They just want a chance to work. The Health Department should change their no-bathroom rule, and listen to vendors before passing future rules affecting their livelihoods. And they should back off, in general, and let street vendors work. Otherwise the Tea Party may be soon be seeing a surge in new members from the streets of NYC.