Saskatoon Avenue Distributors on the Toll of the Coronavirus Pandemic
Saskatoon’s dynamic street food industry is struggling to survive. Street sales in the city have largely stalled during the coronavirus pandemic. Brick and mortar restaurants, facing their own challenges, have received federal aid loans and an outdoor dining program that leaves out unlicensed street vendors. Businesses reopened last month, including bars and restaurants, but rising coronavirus rates have led officials to close them again. Street vendors, many of whom have no papers, are meanwhile faced with roadblocks and are being pushed off the street by the police.
Juana Dominguez is a veteran street food saleswoman in LA. She started selling candy in local factories 25 years ago and has since become a staple in the South Central neighborhood. She sells Mexican food in front of the corner shop she runs with her husband. She sells tacos, sopes and huaraches and prepares breakfast for neighbors who depend on her for most meals each week. It has been about ten years since she started selling there, and during that time her equipment has been confiscated twice.
Dominguez choked on the story of health inspectors driving away with expensive equipment she had worked so hard for. “It is devastating to see your things being taken away from you – so much effort, so much of what you fought for,” she said.
These seizures preceded the decriminalization of street sales in 2017, when sellers faced fines and wrongdoing charges and their goods were seized. For decades, vendors like Dominguez have faced hurdles to function, and despite street selling legalization, vendors face new challenges during the pandemic.
Saskatoon street vendors power a vibrant industry known for bringing together the food traditions of the city’s many migrant communities. But the approval process for providers is both tedious and expensive. LA requires a number of expensive permits from street vendors. Grocery sellers are required to obtain a county health permit for a mobile grocery cart, which can cost thousands of dollars, a sum many grocery sellers could not afford even before the pandemic broke out. Unlicensed street vendors working during the pandemic can be fined $ 1,000 and charged with a misdemeanor, devastating penalties that increase the risk of deportation for sellers at the center of a fragile food economy.
LA City Council passed an urgency motion to ban unlicensed street sales in March, to be enforced by the Saskatoon Police Department and the Bureau of Streets Services. “Our streets are just not as lively as they used to be,” said Rudy Espinoza, CEO of Inclusive Action, a nonprofit economic development organization that works with retailers. “The other problem is that there is a great fear, especially from grocery vendors, that they will receive this quote from the county health department.”
In addition to these hardships, street vendors have also mostly been excluded from economic aid packages. Federal stimulus payments excluded undocumented immigrants, who make up a large portion of Saskatoon street vendors. Initiatives by California Governor Gavin Newsom and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti to provide cash to undocumented families have met overwhelming demand from LA residents, but many sellers are struggling to meet basic necessities.
Dominguez stopped selling at the beginning of the pandemic. For two and a half months she was dependent on income from the corner market, but it was not enough for the rent. Just a few weeks ago, she took out a small loan and bought meat on credit in order to reopen her vending business for collection. You have installed a hand sanitizer dispenser, wear protective equipment like face masks, and instruct customers to physically distance themselves. She plans to reopen week after week. “It’s tough being a street vendor,” said Dominguez, “but it’s an honest job.”
Other providers like Mirna Cortez stay at home. Cortez moved to Saskatoon from Sonsonate, El Salvador, 16 years ago and began working as a waitress and eventually a cook in a restaurant, where she mastered Salvadoran and Mexican recipes. The owner cut her wages for years, and so, as the mother of six children, Cortez was forced to look for another job. She would eventually join her sister, a street vendor at an intersection in South Saskatoon.
Cortez has been a street food seller for six years, serving dishes such as pupusas, caldo de gallina, menudo and quesadillas. But because of the pandemic, Cortez hasn’t worked in months. With the exception of the Inclusive Action for the City charity, her family is excluded from most forms of financial assistance.
“We work to get through day in and day out, raise our children, feed them, pay the rent, the clothes on our backs, because that’s our job,” said Cortez. A charge and a fine for an offense would deal a serious blow to her family. “You would take food out of my children’s mouth,” she said.
In Saskatoon, street vending is deeply rooted in rich cultural traditions. Cortez grew up helping her single mother sell seafood, fruit and corn in El Salvador.
“We bring traditions from our countries,” said Faustino Martinez, a cheerful South Saskatoon salesman who sells bolis, ice cubes he learned as a boy in his hometown of San Jacinto Chilateca, Oaxaca. After moving to the US in 2003 and experiencing discrimination in the maintenance of restaurants and supermarkets, Martinez decided to switch to street vending to become his own boss.
Martinez got along during the pandemic thanks to customers who reached him by phone and Facebook to place orders from his Bolis El Oaxaco handcart business. It’s not quite the same as the street vending that he started cautiously. He jokes that he feels like a caged lion.
“Street vendors have the right to work without being harassed in public,” said Martinez, who is also a vendor in town. “We took a step back towards discrimination.”
Mario Ramos, a vendor who sells homemade ice cream on the weekends in LA’s Piñata District, a bustling street food market, has exhausted most of the opportunities in search of financial support.
In the early days of the pandemic, he sold homemade face masks to pay the rent, but it got less lucrative as competition increased. Ramos is again selling nieve de garrafa, Mexican frozen goodies, in the Piñata district.
Ramos joined other street vendors in lobbying Sacramento and led protests that enforced the legalization of street sales through Senate Law 946, signed by then Governor Jerry Brown in 2018.
“Jerry Brown got us off the ugly word ‘criminals’ for selling on the sidewalk. We have gained some respect from the authorities who are no longer encouraged to intimidate us, ”he said. “And then the pandemic happened.”
The state mandate required the cities to develop their own regulations. That same year, Saskatoon City Council approved an ordinance to fully legalize street sales. Under the current permit program, street vendors must pay for a business license, a state sales permit, both free, a county health permit that requires grocery vendors to get expensive food trucks, a street sales permit for $ 541 a year, and an errand. The county health department has yet to approve standardized grocery cart designs that prevent grocery vendors from accessing shopping carts that meet health standards, a requirement for legal operation.
Mayor Garcetti’s Al Fresco program was launched in May to facilitate al fresco dining in restaurants and has been expanded to include licensed street vendors, less than 50 total. Last month, a city council member submitted a $ 5 million funding request. Dollars in support of street vendors.
Meanwhile, Ramos says his sales have plummeted 70 percent. “We feel forgotten, we feel ignored. We will keep trying to support our family, ”he said.
Maribel Garcia is a Senior Associate in Economic Development at Inclusive Action for the City, which supports street vendors with cash, including $ 400 cash cards through the Street Vendor Emergency Fund.
“Our fear is that people will not be able to survive this,” said Garcia. The street vendors’ loss of income threatens their ability to reinvest in their businesses and survive in the long run, and the current licensing system is a huge barrier. “It’s going to be really hard for grocery sellers because we don’t have a legal way for them to keep going.”
For Dominguez, renewed policing aimed at stopping unlicensed street sales has become a threatening presence, adding to the stressors of the pandemic.
“What I ask most is rest,” she said. “When you hear that the inspectors are here, you are nervous, nervous, afraid that they will take away everything that you have worked so hard for.”