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The Nevada Independent

A state law legalized street vendors. Now they say local rules threaten their future.

With high costs of compliance and a restrictive map that bans vending in popular areas, officials are uncertain whether vendors will seek legal status at all.
Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Local Government

A chance to step out of the shadows, to run a legitimate and legal business.

That’s what a state law passed last year represented for hundreds of street vendors in Nevada.

Whether it be a local elotero selling corn from a push cart or a family selling agua fresca at a corner stand, Nevada’s street vendors have for years worked without permits, facing the possibility of fines and financial calamity if their equipment and wares are seized by local health authorities.

Lawmakers pushed to change that last year, passing SB92. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Fabian Doñate (D-Las Vegas) and signed in June by Gov. Joe Lombardo, offered a pathway for street vendors to operate legitimately, with a license, in a business now recognized under state law — but only once local governments in Clark and Washoe counties set rules for how those businesses could be run.

Street vendors and advocacy groups celebrated the passage of the new law, describing it as a means of economic opportunity and an embrace of part of the local culture in Southern Nevada. One supporter said during a bill hearing last year that its passage could ensure “street vendors are not treated like criminals the way my parents were treated for trying to make a living.”

The path to actually legalizing the business, though, has been checkered by mixed messaging and uneven approaches to regulations from locality to locality. Now, those vendors and their supporters say a patchwork of rules, high fees and restrictions on where they can operate threatens their ability to succeed within the bounds of the law.

Since the bill was signed into law, a high-profile incident in which a street vendor was arrested in front of the Welcome to Las Vegas sign for operating without a business license led the county to remind vendors that they were still “not legally permitted to operate” without regulations in place, despite the passage of the law. Vendors, meanwhile, have criticized local health authority rules they say set cost-prohibitive barriers to gaining a permit — while local governments have said they need to balance the interests of other existing businesses and public health and safety.

On Tuesday, the same groups that supported SB92 came together to voice frustration with Clark County’s ordinance regulating sidewalk vendors. The criticisms focused on a section prohibiting vendors from operating within 500 feet of any county park without a special type of permit. Vendors described parks as a critical source of business and a place of cultural significance.

“For more than 20 years, I have dedicated my life to serving you my tamales, elotes, and raspados in Las Vegas parks,” Teodora Tepetzi, a street vendor and member of progressive advocacy group Make the Road Nevada, said in a press release Tuesday. “We have been left out in the cold.”

On Tuesday, county commissioners approved the ordinance, which will take effect at the end of April.

The next day, the Las Vegas City Council indicated that it would hear its street vendor ordinance at a future meeting. Though largely similar to the county’s, it would prohibit vending “at a location immediately adjacent to a city park,” but without the additional 500 feet of separation.

Other Southern Nevada cities, including Henderson, are working to draft ordinances, while the City of Reno adopted an ordinance in January that comes with steeper insurance requirements but fewer restrictions on locations vendors can operate.

In an interview last week, Doñate described the difference in Clark County’s rules and the proposed Las Vegas policy as a “clear example” of the confusion that might arise from rules differing by jurisdiction.

“The common person does not distinguish between unincorporated Clark County and the City of Las Vegas and the City of North Las Vegas,” he said. “What I have a fear of … is a vendor getting in trouble in one jurisdiction simply because they were across the street and didn’t realize.”

So how did a state law with broad support and a goal to legitimize a business largely helmed by immigrants and Latinos come to threaten the economic livelihood of those same workers?

A law to help those ‘just earning a living’

Doñate described SB92 as a way of bringing businesses out of the margins that have been operating in the gray market for years.

Throughout the process, street vendors have echoed that sentiment. Luis Sanchez, a street vendor, told The Nevada Independent in Spanish last year that he hoped the regulations established by local governments would not be too restrictive for his business.

“I'm not stealing, I'm not doing anything bad, I'm just earning a living,” he said at the time.

In pursuing the bill — which received widespread support, passing out of the Assembly in a 40-1 vote and out of the Senate in a 20-1 vote — Doñate emphasized the importance of making sure regulations were uniform across jurisdictions.

The bill itself came with a slew of specific requirements: local governments cannot completely prohibit sidewalk vending and cannot impose criminal penalties for vending in a residential area; a street vendor cannot operate within 1,500 feet of a resort hotel or an arena or facility that can seat at least 20,000 people; and nonstationary street vendors cannot be prohibited from operating in residential areas.

But the law also gave local governments wide latitude to implement licensure and other rules — discretion that has led those who originally supported SB92 to now describe the rules as antithetical to the bill’s purpose.

Burdensome restrictions, uneven rules cloud business

Clark County’s ordinance, the first to pass in Southern Nevada, will require sidewalk vendors to hold a state business license, general liability insurance and a permit from local health authorities. With those things in hand — which might together cost upwards of $1,200 in an individual’s first year of business — a sidewalk vendor will then be able to obtain a Clark County business license for an annual fee of $150.

The ordinance established additional operating rules: setting the size of a sidewalk vendor’s conveyance (including a stand or cart, any signs and other equipment) at no more than 25 square feet; prohibiting the sale of nonfood items, alcohol, tobacco and cannabis products and weapons; and, limiting hours of operation to 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

A vendor caught operating outside the bounds of those rules could see their materials seized and destroyed by local law enforcement and health authorities in addition to a civil penalty of $500 for each violation.

The ordinance also comes with a bevy of restrictions on where sidewalk vendors can operate, on top of the state law’s ban near resorts and large venues. That includes vending within 500 feet of parks, schools when they are in session and for a half-hour after they close, and any pedestrian malls or entertainment districts, as well as within 150 feet of any other street vendor or licensed food establishment. Street vendors also cannot operate within 15 feet of an intersection, bus stop or building entrance.

In the face of complaints from vendors, county officials defended the ordinance. Commissioner Michael Naft said he had never seen any ordinance with such extensive outreach efforts, while Commissioner Tick Segerblom called it the “biggest thing we’ve done in my five years here.”

But vendors in attendance Tuesday were not pleased, particularly with the bans near parks and schools, which they said are important sites for sales.

When asked about how the distance requirement was set, county staff said the rules were set to align with how other businesses are regulated in parks — only allowing sales through special permits. Vince Queano, director of the Clark County Department of Business Licensing, said in an interview the rules differ from those for mobile food vendors (such as food trucks), which are only prohibited from selling within the boundaries of county parks without the added distance separation.

“If we were to model the same distance restriction with sidewalk vendors, then that would put these sidewalk vendors on the street, basically,” Queano said.

Another point of contention between vendors and local officials has been the permitting rules set by the health district.

Larry Rogers, environmental health manager with the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD), said SB92 did little to change existing rules for open-air food vendors.

The requirements include having professional grade food equipment and a prohibition on homemade food, while the permitting process involves an application and a plan review conducted by SNHD staff that costs $850 with additional fees annually. But those costs can soar if a vendor must acquire commercial equipment to meet the minimum requirements. Rogers said top-of-the-line equipment for hot dog carts can cost $10,000.

“We’re not trying to be in anyone’s way,” Rogers said. “But at the end of the day, what the health district is here for and what I’m tasked to do [under state law] is protect the public from foodborne illness.”

Still, his main message for vendors was: “We’re open for business.”

Rogers also noted ongoing efforts to assist vendors, highlighting that under SB92, the health district must also allow for a payment plan for its permitting fees. He said SNHD also allows the option of a “compliance schedule” that can provide vendors with the ability to use household equipment for a limited period, while they work to obtain commercial grade equipment.

To Doñate, that level of help is not enough.

“We’re going to run into a lot of problems where many of these individuals are going to apply for the business license, but they’re not going to be receiving it because of the health district requirements,” Doñate said. “They’re going to be stuck in this limbo of repeat offenses, retraumatization simply because we put these requirements and we didn’t meet the community where they asked us to meet them.”

Uncertainty remains for vendors

Street vendors, their supporters and government officials alike expressed uncertainty about how these rules would actually play out for the nascent legal street vending industry. 

In interviews, county and health district staff avoided predicting how many street vendors would actually pursue licenses. Those projections are further complicated by the unknown number of street vendors currently operating in the Las Vegas Valley, with estimates running from 200 to more than 1,000. 

“It’s been really hard to get an exact number,” Joanna Jacob, government affairs manager for Clark County, said in an interview.

Nevada’s neighbor to the west may provide a glimpse into how this industry could continue to operate in the shadows under onerous regulations.

In Los Angeles County, thousands of sidewalk vendors continued to operate without permits even after the passage of a 2018 law legalized the practice. In 2021, the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board described the “complicated, impractical and expensive” network of public health regulations as a roadblock to permitting, leaving most vendors in an underground and unregulated economy.

While local governments there have rolled back some restrictions, the situation underscores the challenges of legitimizing a business previously made illegal.

Rogers said he ideally envisioned the industry as a “smashing success” where vendors are doing it “the right way,” adopting handwashing and safe food practices.

“But I really do want to see people start to come into the health district and ask for these permits,” Rogers said. “I can’t even predict what it’ll look like … Even a few people would be nice. We’ve gotten zero interest.”

County staff indicated there would be efforts to educate the community and vendors about the ordinance before it takes effect at the end of the month, and by that time, the county will also launch an updated map showing the areas where vending is prohibited. The current map is based on the October ordinance prohibiting vending near resorts.

For now, it’s a waiting game.

“There are still a lot of unknowns,” Doñate said at a Tuesday press conference.


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