Tighter rules for coffee stands begin soon

EVERETT — Drive-through coffee stands featuring nearly naked baristas are being put on notice about stricter laws coming to Snohomish County.

New rules for adult entertainment and lewd conduct are set to take effect Jan. 7. They would apply to an estimated half dozen or more businesses in the county outside city limits.

Supporters of the new rules hope they spur other local governments, including Everett, to take similar action.

“We’ve actually taken the lead, and I hope that other people follow our lead,” County Council Chairman Mike Cooper said. “We’re not putting one person out of business.”

The County Council voted unanimously on Dec. 9 to regulate businesses as adult entertainment if employees show too much skin in public. The council also strengthened the county’s lewd conduct law, including tougher penalties and clarifying definitions for public places. That law also holds business owners and managers accountable for allowing lewd conduct.

County Executive Aaron Reardon signed the ordinances Monday. They become active in 10 calendar days.

Bill Wheeler, the owner of the Grab-N-Go chain of bikini espresso stands, said the new rules would have little impact on business.

“It’s not a problem,” he said. “My girls look just as beautiful in a bikini as they would in pasties anyways.”

The bikinis, however, appear to be a big draw for customers. After a stand on Murphy’s Corner near Mill Creek changed to more family-friendly attire about a month ago, business dropped by about 95 percent, Wheeler estimated.

“I don’t plan on doing that with any other stand,” he said. “Nobody wants to buy coffee from a clothing stand.”

Businesses that might be affected by the new rules should expect to receive a letter soon with a copy of the new laws and an application to apply for an adult business license, Auditor Carolyn Weikel said. Licensing takes about 30 days.

The auditor’s office does not have staff to go out and inspect the stands, Weikel said. Instead, county officials will rely on the public to report problems. That by itself might be enough to make some businesses change their practices, she said.

“Will they go as far as they have gone?” Weikel said. “No, not if the community keeps watching them. The community has a lot of impact.”

As recently as 2008, Weikel’s staff included three inspectors working in the field. Since then, one was laid off, another resigned and a third retired. The inspectors have not been replaced.

Cooper said the County Council should try to find a long-term solution for the inspections. While working on the rules for coffee stands and other business, it came to light that during the past year the auditor’s office has not been inspecting other adult businesses, such as strip clubs and exotic bookstores, he said. One option is moving those duties from the auditor to code-enforcement staff or another department.

“It’s not the barista issue that caused this to happen,” Cooper said. “We already weren’t doing the inspections.”

The county already licenses businesses identified as having a potential impact on health, safety or welfare, such as pawn brokers and strip clubs.

The new rules don’t prevent workers from wearing bikinis in public. Instead, they prohibit more revealing attire, such as thongs or pasties that don’t fully cover rear ends or the bottom portion of the breasts.

Under the new rules, sexually explicit signs are considered evidence of an adult business. The changes do not prohibit breast-feeding in public or artistic expression.

Community members who have been instrumental in pushing the county rules are likely to take the battle to Everett early next year. “We’re planning to go to the Everett City Council as sort of a next step,” said Shahram Hadian, who has organized local opposition to risque stands.

More stands are likely to set up shop in Everett if the city fails to strengthen its rules, he said, since the county and Lynnwood will have tougher laws.

Past complaints have included baristas flashing customers and performing simulated sex acts, as well as employees wearing thongs, pasties and other skimpy clothing. The county’s new rules already appear to be moderating behavior even before they take effect, Hadian said.

“I definitely think it’s had an impact,” he said. “The word has gotten out and they have toned down.”

Sheriff’s deputies have not made any recent arrests related to the stands and have not received many complaints about them lately, spokeswoman Rebecca Hover said. Deputies and Everett police are pursuing criminal charges from earlier this year against employees at coffee stands on Highway 99 and Broadway.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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