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Bathroom break costs Astorian his vendor license

An Astoria man has the dubious distinction of being the first street vendor in the city to lose his permit for leaving his cart to go to the bathroom under a new citywide policy.

On Feb. 17, Mohammed Shirajul Islam, 42, left his peanut cart at the spot near City Hall that he has frequented for 10 years to use the restroom at a nearby bookstore. He returned to find his vending permit missing, claimed by health inspectors as part of a new regulation that prevents vendors from leaving their carts unattended even briefly.

Advocates estimated it would take a month for Islam to get a new permit. Islam worried about what would happen to his loyal customer base in the meantime.

“If I don’t come ... and some other vendor comes, they don’t buy,” he said during a protest in front of the city Department of Health and Human Services office in Manhattan Tuesday. “They say, ‘What happened to you yesterday?’”

The policy was changed because the Health Department is concerned that a cart left unattended even for a few minutes could be targeted by someone looking to poison the city’s food supply, vendor advocates said. The Health Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time Tuesday.

“I don’t think that’s actually happened,” said Sean Basinski, director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center. “Vendors have always done this. It’s not ideal, but usually it’s a quick couple of minutes.”

Shirajul, a father of four, said he has been losing sleep as the days pass, each one a lost opportunity to earn his standard income of about $150 a day.

“The problem is my family. I need to buy a lot of things. I need to buy food, I need to buy clothing for my children,” he said. Without a job it’s very, very difficult to live here. I need to pay rent. March is coming.”

The city’s new policy, which did not require approval from the City Council, took effect Jan. 1.

“They’re supposed to be experts on public health, but they weren’t thinking about the health of the vendors,” Basinski said.

Other vendors complained that even finding someone to guard the cart during a bathroom break may not be enough to avoid punishment.

Bronx resident Daras Miah, 49, said he was ticketed by police in December — before the new policy began — when he left for five minutes to relieve himself.

“Somebody watched my cart,” he said. “I come back, the police come: ‘Give me your license.’”

To earn his new permit, Islam must transport his cart from its storage place in Manhattan to the city’s inspection facility in Queens, an additional cost and inconvenience, Basinski said.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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