Government agencies and large corporations are beginning to launch efforts to ease the financial burden caused by the global pandemic, but for many of New York City’s small businesses and their employees, lasting impacts of the pandemic are still uncertain.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that the city’s Small Business Services (SBS) will be rolling out financial relief for establishments impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.
As of now, that aid comes in the form of up to $75,000 in zero-interest loans for businesses with fewer than 100 employees that have seen a sales decrease of at least 25 percent, or a two-month coverage of 40 percent of payroll costs for businesses with fewer than five employees.
According to a spokesperson for SBS, the department is currently focused on getting those programs operational as it deliberates next steps for both long and short-term assistance. Applications and other resources for small businesses can be accessed at nyc.gov/covid19biz.
At the same time, the state has enacted a 90-day halt on evictions to provide security for renters, including small business owners. The governor has also recommended a similar suspension of mortgage payments for property owners.
Charter Communications, also known as Spectrum, said it will not discontinue internet and phone services for individuals or businesses unable to pay bills due to loss of income at this time.
Even still, current measures are certainly not enough to quell the fallout for some of the city’s most economically vulnerable populations.
“Our small businesses, our arts community and our cultural organizations are core to our economy and our identity as a city,” penned NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer in an open letter demanding greater government action on the issue.
“As thousands of these businesses struggle to stay afloat, it is no exaggeration to say that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers face losing their livelihoods,” he continued.
Stringer called for an increase to a maximum $150,000 loan for SBS’s no-interest relief program, on top of additional, more drastic legislation.
This includes stopping collection of outstanding small business fines for six months, a three-month automatic renewal of licenses and permits for bars and restaurants without fees, and suspending payment of Commercial Rent Tax by ground-floor retailers for two months.
Once public health is stabilized, Stringer proposes the state and city enact a loan and grant “Re-Start” program to help small businesses that have closed temporarily to open their doors and re-hire workers.
In the meantime, local operations such as neighborhood Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are working independently and in tandem to mitigate the damage.
Jamie Faye-Bean, executive director of the Sunnyside Shines, says that much of the BID’s initial response has been geared toward outreach to neighborhood businesses, making sure that they are updated on the latest mandates and aware of available aid.
On Thursday, the BID released a list of local businesses that are still open or providing services on its own coronavirus updates page. Faye-Bean is additionally collaborating with Chef Jonathan Forgash, founder of the Queens Dinner Club, to launch a similar page for Astoria (astoriatogether.com).
She revealed that Sunnyside Shines is also engaged in advocacy with other organizations like other BIDs and chambers of commerce to put pressure on elected officials to produce more a comprehensive package for struggling businesses.
“There is very little right now that people can apply for and access immediately,” said Faye-Bean. “It’s clear that as much as the government is trying to mount this effort, the most vulnerable people in the equation are going to fall between the cracks.”
Noticeably missing in the conversations on relief is mention of undocumented immigrants, who are employed by many the city’s small businesses, particularly in the food-service industry.
Most restaurants, says Fay-Bean, keep a four-week cash reserve, meaning that beyond that period it will be very difficult to stay open without assistance. However, as it stands now, businesses with undocumented employees are ineligible for payroll grants, since the majority of these workers are paid off the books and may have to layoff staff they can no longer afford.
“People are overwhelmed by red tape and bureaucracy,” she said. “They are scared and they are discouraged. and we’re worried places will go out of business very quickly.”
The devastation at this point is overwhelming for many New Yorkers, but Faye-Bean sees a possible silver lining on the horizon, as the COVID-19 crisis exposes the fragility caused by consumer habits that favor large companies rather than locally owned businesses.
“What we do in the next couple of days is going to determine what our neighborhoods are going to look like in the future,” she projects. “It’s a very painful process, but there’s an opportunity here to re-envision where we spend our money and begin restructuring our local economy.”