Restaurant Revolt: Defy the City’s Streetery Legislation!

Philadelphia’s City Council recently passed legislation permanently approving existing streeteries for restaurants that fall within a zone comprising most of West Philly and Center City. The more than 250 restaurants that fall outside the zone “can apply for an exemption, but that would need approval from the surrounding community and the local city councilmember.”

Aside from the zone of approval being somewhat arbitrary, the legislation sounds reasonable enough. Any restaurant supported by its community should be good to go!

Or, maybe not so much.

“Restaurants left out of Philly’s ‘streeteries’ legislation worry it will be impossible to get approval,” reads a November 29th article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The article goes on to quote restaurant owners who insist that their businesses would flounder without the extra revenue generated by their streeteries.

So, alright, perhaps the legislation isn’t quite so reasonable after all.

Anecdotally, I’ve yet to encounter anyone who dislikes Philadelphia’s streeteries. In fact, everyone I’ve talked to seems to be rather fond of them. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, in a statement that seems representative, observed that “expanded outdoor dining has helped businesses and created a more vibrant atmosphere in the city.”

Why, then, has City Council added a maze of red tape and exclusions? A more reasonable approach would be to approve every streetery, then offer a process for communities to disapprove and limit them when necessary.

Expanded outdoor dining is a rare example of a good thing that came from COVID-19. The burden of jumping through hoops should be borne by those who want to take the good thing away, not those who want to keep their business afloat.

Be that as it may, the wrong-headed legislation is already in place. So, what now?

Perhaps it’s time for some civil disobedience.

Restaurants should consider calling the City’s bluff; does the City actually have the staff to enforce the rule and fine places that keep popular outdoor seating?

Pretend you’re a member of the Kenney administration responding to a city-wide boycott against the streetery legislation. You don’t have the personnel to enforce sanctions on all the boycotters. But perhaps you could make an example out of a few – get a story on the front page of the Inquirer about a streetery that was forced to cease and desist, the restaurant slapped with steep fines. A frontpage story like that might serve to dissuade other boycotters from continuing with their acts of civil disobedience.

But how would this tactic look? The restaurant industry has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Streeteries have been their lifeline. They’ve made the city vibrant during an otherwise dark time.

Snatching that lifeline away from restaurants is not exactly a great PR move.

But let’s say the city sticks to its guns. What then? We’d need to make a legal challenge.

Surely we could muster up some lawyers willing to take on the city, fight for the little guy, and save our streeteries.

“Trade and commerce, if they were not made of India rubber, would never manage to bounce over the obstacles which legislators are continually putting in their way,” as Henry David Thoreau wrote.

Due to the streetery rules being arbitrary and capricious, I believe that Philadelphia’s restaurant industry would be wholly justified in organizing a complete and total boycott of the legislation.

Just as Thoreau “could not help being struck with the foolishness” of his government when he was thrown in prison for refusing to pay his poll tax, the citizens of Philadelphia would be struck with the foolishness of City Council’s streetery legislation if the Kenney Administration tried to crack down on boycotters.

I say Philly’s restaurant owners should look to Thoreau, who “came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.” They could waste precious time trying to pressure City Council to amend the arbitrary law. Or, they could transgress it at once.

    • Nick Russo is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and on a leave of absence from law school at Villanova University. Follow him on Twitter @NickAndrewRusso.

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