The Day the Village Stood Still: The COVID Relief Bill 2021

JIM DROUGAS, who opened Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books 30 years ago. It’s one of many historic Greenwich Village businesses that have come upon hard times during the pandemic. Photo by Bob Cooley.

By Roger Paradiso

President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act passed in the Senate 51-50. No Republicans voted for the bill in the House or the Senate. So much for the bipartisan support that the president was hoping to get. But what we Americans will get is much-needed COVID relief. “The American Rescue Plan provides $1,400 direct payments to individuals making up to $75,000 annually, $350 billion in aid to state and local governments and $14 billion for vaccine distribution. The bill also provides $130 billion to elementary, middle and high schools to assist with safe reopening” (CBS News).

The Biden plan provides an additional $300 billion in unemployment benefits through September, a $3,600 tax credit per child and, very importantly, subsidies to purchase insurance through the Affordable Care Act for millions of eligible citizens.

This is also an important bill for our mom-and-pops in the Village; $50 billion dollars will be distributed to the “real” small businesses of the country. And through the Paycheck Protection Plan they will receive $7 billion to cover their employees. In the next issue, we will discuss the $25 billion relief for small and mid-sized restaurants, which are the size of most of our restaurants in the Village.

Almost a year ago, the Village stood still as we were being invaded by a virus. No one knew whether COVD-19 was going to be this deadly. As we go to press, 540,000 citizens have died and more than 30,000,000 have been infected.

Everyone knew that somehow our lives were going to be changed. I never dreamed that I would be covering the stories of five of our mom-and-pops in the West Village for 12 long months. Their struggle to survive has been inspiring, though at times, depressing.

I checked in with Nick the Greek who is the owner of the Cinema Village on East 12th Street. Nick said he was scared that he would lose his theater during the Christmas season when movie theaters were not allowed to open. “Opening is the key thing. Even at 25 percent, which I can’t make any money at. It’s just the thought that I would be open, like many other businesses like restaurants and gyms.”

Nick has been generally positive. He has kept some of his staff on through most of the year, with and without the Payroll Protection Plan assistance. They continue to work at the Cinema Village; there will be a new lobby and restrooms. The air handlers have been upgraded with increased fresh air flow and HEPA filters. These are all expenses that he has paid for mostly from his own money. Although he has also had some help from the grants and loans of the Cares Act, it was not nearly enough. There is great hope the Biden bill will help. Nick says that his ticket prices will stay the same as before. “Twelve dollars general admission. Eight dollars for seniors and children. I believe I have the lowest ticket prices in Manhattan.”

Nick is hanging in with his 90-year-old friend who brought him into the movie business. His biggest concern now is getting this friend the vaccine. “I’m on the phone for hours to get him an appointment,” he says. The computerized vaccination system is a disaster in New York and other large cities. Many hope they can get a shot in the arm before COVID kills them.

Nick and I talk about our fondness for the analog world. “I remember when movies would be on film,” he recalls. Before I leave, he says he will open up in mid-April. It will be a happy day for Nick as his theater, and many of the others in the city, have been dark since March 15th, 2020. 

Jamal from Village Music World on Bleecker Street has not had much success with his bank or the Cares Act. He received a very small PPP loan that lasted about two months of the full year we have been in some form of lockdown. So far, the Care’s Act has failed him, along with other business owners in the Village. As he can’t seem to get a loan from his bank or any government program, he has hired a lawyer to help him. He is six months behind in rent and owes thousands for utilities. He has been floating money in from personal loans and savings and now must add the expense of a retainer for a lawyer.

“The street is much better than before,” Jamal says. There are some weekdays he makes money, but usually only on weekends. It does not cover his expenses. This is a family business and his only income. He is there every day trying to sell CDs and vintage Vinyl records.

All is not hopeless in the Village, however. The beauty of Washington Square Park still brings a crowd on a sunny day. Half the crowd wear masks; the other half doesn’t, despite the warnings from medical experts around the world. This being the Village, you can still find a wannabe expert who thinks COVID has been a government plot or hoax. Some even think that the vaccines are part of a plot by Bill Gates to have Microsoft take over the world.

I run into James Drougas of Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books and he says, “Almost every week or two a young person comes into my bookshop asking to be of help or for a regular job. The hunger of young people to be around books is nothing new. After 30 years in business, I hear the same stories, but they are now more poignant than ever. A young lawyer from China who recently passed her bar exam here quit her job because she considered the firm unethical. She offered to help out but refuses to accept pay in any form, on principle. A Parsons graduate, who is living in a shelter now, offers to help out. She gets lots of work done every time she comes in.”

Jim has adjusted his hours and spends less time in his bookstore on weekdays. He is always ordering rare books. “One source even alerted me (before he puts the list out to the other shops) that 25 copies of the Complete Works of William Blake is available—so I can grab them all.” 

He is several months behind in rent, as are most of the mom-and-pops in the Village. Thank God Governor Cuomo and Mayor di Blasio have put in place a rent moratorium.

Time will tell if our Villagers are going to get the aid they were promised regarding the Cares Act. As we know, the banks made a lot of money and the big companies with hundreds of thousands of employees made out. Our mom-and-pop shops in the Village were cut short on the Cares aid. The Biden bill is targeted to small businesses. It is time the Village gets some relief from the terrible damage done by this killer virus.

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