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Illegal Street Vendors on San Francisco Waterfront Sell Food, Alcohol Raising Health Safety Concerns

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- Thousands of tourists were returning to San Francisco on this Memorial Day weekend. Some of the hotspots included Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 where it was hard to walk down the street without bumping into people.

"The crowds are a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be," said Jeff Hill, visiting the city from Chico.

It was a good sign for area merchants after a year of lockdown. The problem was a thriving, unlicensed market at the wharf was drawing a lot of the tourists away from lawful, brick-and-mortar merchants.

Carlos Salazar manages a juice shop called Mango Crazy. He said it was a double whammy: first the pandemic and now the illegal vendors. He said they were struggling with the expensive rents and utilities.

"(The street vendors are) taking 60% or 65% of the sales from us," Salazar said.

Visitors were spending money on clothes, jewelry and even alcohol at the unlicensed street-vendor market. About half a dozen tents sold shots, cocktails and beer.

"There's no ID-checking so, literally, a minor can walk up and buy alcohol. The alcohol is a new factor, they've taken it to the next level," said Randall Scott, executive director of the Fisherman's Wharf Community Benefit District, which represents about 300 merchants.

Scott has been fighting the issue for the past two years but the problem has escalated in recent months. Aside from the alcohol, food vendors were cooking with propane tanks and there was no place for them to wash their hands.

"One is having to abide by all the health and safety regulations and the other one is not. I would call it an unfair business practice," Scott said.

The business owners complained to the city and the state but a 2018 state law, senate bill 946, prevents the Port of San Francisco from criminalizing these vendors along the waterfront.

The port communications director, Randy Quezada, said they have been providing education, warning and multilingual flyers to the vendors but the vendors continue to ignore the port's request to leave.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin introduced legislation last week to start a pilot program for permitting and regulating the street vendors on port property. Mayor London Breed's office told KPIX the mayor will work with Supervisor Peskin to resolve the issue quickly.

If the supervisors approve the pilot program, the program will not allow vendors to sell food or alcohol.

Many of the vendors are non-English speakers. Some were laid off during the pandemic. They said they were trying to survive like everybody else.

"It's a sign of the times, right? The stores over there are closed," said Leasa Hill, who was visiting from Chico and bought drinks from the street vendors. "We have this market over here. This is actually what I love -- I love, like, the farmers market setting."

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