Last Thursday, dozens of small business owners and local elected officials rallied in Astoria with a list of demands for the city and state, including commercial rent relief, a plan for expanded indoor dining and more assistance from agencies.
Roseann McSorley, owner of the gastropub Katch Astoria, said small business owners are scared and nearing financial ruin. She expressed fear that her employees will also lose their jobs when mom-and-pop shops shutter.
“Small businesses are failing,” she said. “We’re closing day by day.”
Jaime-Faye Bean, executive director of the Sunnyside Shines Business Improvement District (BID) and co-founder of the group Queens Together, works with nearly 300 small businesses in her neighborhood. She said they are dealing with two rents: one for their homes and one for their storefronts.
With six months of rent due since the coronavirus crisis began, many small business owners just can’t hold on anymore, Bean said.
“We’re seeing them disappear one by one,” she said. “We can’t stand by anymore while this happens.”
In addition to demanding rent relief, Bean also called for an improvement and expansion to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL).
Bean noted that PPP money has dried up. Many business owners she worked with didn’t meet the eligibility requirements for a lot of relief programs offered.
“We are now in a race to the bottom,” she said, “and it needs to stop.”
An issue many business owners spoke about was the need for insurance companies to respond to and pay out business interruption claims. Rick White, owner of Astoria Bier & Cheese, said the cost of closing his business for three months due to the pandemic was well over $200,000 in lost revenue, spoiled food, labor and other expenses.
“All of which under normal circumstances would be covered by my business insurance,” he said. “But we get nothing but stonewalled.”
State Senator Michael Gianaris, who has worked with his small business advisory council on crafting legislation to provide commercial rent relief, said it is “unconscionable” that businesses were told to close at the height of COVID-19, but still owe rent when they couldn’t operate.
When he tried passing rent relief in March and April, Gianaris said he was told to wait because the federal government may provide an influx of funding.
“It’s pretty clear at this point that Washington is not coming to our rescue, at least not this version of Washington,” he said. “We cannot wait until January to see if the next version hopefully does something. Businesses are closing as we speak.”
Another demand from small businesses is for remedial, rather than threatening and punitive, checks from the State Liquor Authority (SLA). State Senator Jessica Ramos, whose district has seen dozens of restaurants and bars temporarily lose their liquor licenses after visits from SLA investigators, said small businesses are being harassed.
“Yes, there are bad actors,” she said. “But by and large, the SLA is not just harassing bad actors.
“They come and do inspections in businesses everyday, day in and day out, even if there weren’t any prior infractions,” Ramos added. “We have seen licenses taken away from establishments that have been around for 30 to 40 years without any sort of faulty record.”
Small businesses are also asking for another round of disaster grants and loans from the city’s Department of Small Business Services (SBS) with improved guidelines. Councilman Donovan Richards noted that in the last round, Manhattan businesses received 57 percent of all SBS loans.
Queens only received 19 percent of disaster loans, which the Democratic nominee for Queens borough president called “shameful.” Richards said he hopes Mayor Bill de Blasio will sign newly passed legislation mandating SBS to publish those statistics.
Another issue that speakers demanded at the rally is relief for artists. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who chairs the City Council’s Cultural Affairs Committee, said arts venues, small nonprofit cultural groups, and even for-profit organizations need to be included in every relief package the city offers.
He has introduced legislation, which will be heard later this month, that would allow artists to perform on open streets and parks.
“If people can’t go into small cultural venues, then let them come to the people in the streets and parks,” Van Bramer said. “There is no New York City without artists.”
Sheila Lewandowski, executive director of The Chocolate Factory Theater, said cultural and arts venues were first to shut down, but the last to open. She noted that her theater can’t have live performances or even live-streamed events.
Lewandowski said she supports Van Bramer’s legislation, but also wants arts organizations to be able to sell tickets to outdoor events too.
“How are artists going to survive?” she said. “They’re leaving not just because their jobs are gone, but also because they can’t pay their rent.”
Several business owners and advocates from Brooklyn also attended the rally. Rick Echeverria, an activist from Bushwick and a candidate for City Council, noted that immigrant business owners have been directly impacted by the virus. Many have lost family members, friends or employees to COVID-19.
He also said business owners have exhausted their financial resources, whether it’s credit, savings or even their personal stimulus payments, to address both their personal health crises and past due rent.
Finally, Echevarria said, immigrant small businesses are “preyed upon” by predatory tax preparation firms. Some have charged fees, misled and misinformed them, or even dissuaded them from applying for PPP and other programs.
“The solution from government has been to encourage these business owners to negotiate with their landlords,” he said. “But you can’t negotiate when you’ve exhausted all of your savings, all of your resources.”
The only solution, Echevarria said, is for the city and state government to pass legislation, such as the measures mentioned at the rally, before it’s too late.
“Businesses are surrendering, they’re giving up,” he said. “Moratoriums are not saving them.”
Tina Maria Oppedisano, manager and owner of Il Bacco in Little Neck, has taken action to force the state to restart indoor dining. Oppedisano is a leading plaintiff in the $2 billion lawsuit against the state, which now has nearly 1,000 restaurants joining.
The restaurant owner noted that eight days after the lawsuit was announced, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the return to indoor dining, starting on September 30, at 25 percent capacity.
“I don’t want to sound unappreciative, but I absolutely do not consider this a victory,” she said. “It is a step forward, but it is not a victory.”
She noted that Il Bacco is just 500 feet from the Nassau County border. Long Island resumed indoor dining at 50 percent capacity in late June, she said.
Meanwhile, throughout the summer, her restaurant was confined to just five tables and a tent during outdoor dining.
“Our industry is being torn apart right before our eyes,” she said. “The government has single-handedly destroyed lives and our livelihoods.
“This will not be over, at least in my eyes, until we receive what is fair and what is right,” Oppedisano added. “Until we are treated the same way that everyone else is treated.”