By Marcus E. Howard
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The topless women, Elmos and other costumed characters who work for tips in New York's Times Square will no longer be free to roam the area under a bill passed by the City Council on Thursday.
In response to scared tourists and annoyed locals, the council's law would restrict the characters to a handful of designated zones, each about the size of a city bus, where they could solicit tips for posing for photographs. Other areas of the Times Square pedestrian plaza would be off limits.
The legislation comes after complaints about aggressive solicitation of money and other behavior in the famed midtown Manhattan crossroads by the dozens of Elmos, Spidermen and other mascots who set up shop there.
In the past two years, there has been a proliferation of costumed characters who pose for pictures with tourists in return for tips in Times Square. Once known for its sex shops, cavernous movie theaters and street crime, the area has been a family-friendly tourist attraction since the 1990s.
But scattered incidents of violence and allegations of aggressive behavior by some characters have raised concerns that the area could regress, pushing politicians to call for new restrictions. The appearance of topless women with painted bodies raised particular concern about the area's "family" atmosphere being compromised.
A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has voiced support for new restrictions, would not say whether he would sign the bill.
The workers say the bill unfairly targets them and could hurt their access to tourists.
Keith Albahae, who works as a green-haired Joker character, told a hearing last week that he and his colleagues "do not harass people or block traffic," adding that some tourists complain when they realize they are supposed to tip a few dollars for photos.
To the Times Square Alliance, the business association that helped write the bill, it is a quality of life issue.
"It really is a compromise to recognize that there are people earnestly earning a living, but also that there's been some real problems that just like any other commercial activity you need to regulate it," said Tim Tompkins, president of the alliance, said in an interview Wednesday.
In 2015, more than 300 costumed characters, topless women and ticket vendors worked in Times Square, police said.
Since January, at least 16 of the workers have been charged with crimes, including assault, aggressive soliciting, forcible touching and grand larceny, according to police. Last year, there were 15 arrests.
(Reporting by Marcus E. Howard; Editing by Bill Trott)