By Roger Paradiso
A little over one year ago, the Village was shut down due to the worst pandemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic.
I have written about the mom-and-pops in the West Village in this series of articles, published with the support of WestView’s George Capsis. It is hard to believe that all five of the small businesses I focused on are still open, because the landscape in the West Village, not unlike that of any other village in this country (and probably the world), is in a state of depression. Many stores have stayed shuttered because there is not enough business to support them. The streets ebb and flow with traffic. Most of the pedestrian traffic is on weekends, which keeps the remaining stores in business. The weekday business is very bad.
The city and state have slowly opened up the restaurants and entertainment spaces as they carefully monitor the infection rate in all parts of the city. The current rate is about 3.1 percent, as we go to press, though there are still some hot spots (mostly in the four outer boroughs).
It is not unusual to see people not wearing masks in public, as if the pandemic is over, even though we are warned by public health officials that Covid-19 is still deadly and will very likely infect more Americans with even deadlier strains.
On the national front, newly elected President Biden and his fellow Democrats in Congress have passed a $1.9 trillion relief bill without Republican support, which is quite remarkable. How do Mitch McConnell and his fellow Trumplicans justify their indifference to the hardships of small business owners, whom many claim constitute the backbone of our society? I suspect some people in government would rather support big businesses. History will judge.
The relief bill is aimed at saving as many lives and businesses as possible. Expectations are that 70 percent or more of Americans will receive the vaccine (25.7 percent have been vaccinated so far). This, according to officials, will enable herd immunity and relegate Covid-19 to a far less infectious and contagious state. As there are predictions that this deadly virus will be with us for a while, it is expected that booster shots will be given every six months or so in the near future.
Many Villagers remain afraid of going out while others carry on as if to defy the dire warnings. The night landscape of the Village is still bleak, even with the lights of some restaurants, bars, and clubs open later than the retail stores. I have reached out to the brave small business owners who still want to express how they feel and what they need from government to survive.
“I am immensely grateful to the government for finally having passed a relief package aimed at helping the restaurant industry survive this debilitating crisis. Wouldn’t it have been nice if they had acted sooner so that we hadn’t been put in a position to have to choose between making a living and living (for that matter)? So many of my fellow brothers and sisters have been forced to permanently close,” says Vittorio Antonini of La Laterna di Vittorio on MacDougal Street. “I’ve read that Covid has cost the restaurant industry somewhere around $400 billion dollars, yet the bill allocates around $30 billion. I fear the math does not work.”
Our scientists play the most important role in this pandemic. Yes, we must act according to the science of the disease, though some politicians only consider the science of economic relief. Yet it is the other half of life that often leads us to a way out. It is the human will, intelligence, and empathy that I think will ultimately help us solve this problem. And there is an urgent need for our politicians and the other stakeholders in our society to come together now to provide what is a fair solution. There is no way a huge percentage of businesses will be able to pay the entire back rents and utility bills. There will need to be compromises with fairness to all.
I think about Jamal Alnasr, of Village Music World on Bleecker Street, and the huge debt, for a small business, that he has accumulated. He is far behind on his rent and utilities bills despite having used massive amounts of personal capital to try to reduce his debt load. He has received very little aid from the federal, state, or city Covid relief grants and loans. Jamal says,
“To my knowledge of other businesses around my neighborhood, and friends around the city, in some cases the government funds to businesses helped and saved many; in other cases, did not.
“It’s a little complicated when it comes to small businesses. Now it’s going to come to the time when landlords go after that back rent for the months we were closed, and utilities companies such as Con Ed will bill for the period we were closed. I think there is a trick right there. From the phone companies—they do not give a credit or refund for the period we closed. They have some rules which are insane: that we had to notify them before the pandemic happened and had to have told them we were going to be closed…this is an insane trick? No one is talking about this, especially the phone companies such as Spectrum. And now we do not know how the Covid relief bill is going to play with landlords for the back rent? It’s unclear yet, at least for me.”
I asked James Drougas, of Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books, how he is doing. “I received the personal $1,400 very late… Otherwise, not finding any big easy simple solutions for little businesses… Hard to say, still feeling unsure of the overall economy and implications of the effects of so little help to the little guy. Biden is more forthcoming than Trump ever was but still far from enough under the dire circumstances overall.” I asked if James has anything to say to President Biden or the Congress that passed the bill? He answered, “Thanks, but you can do a lot better.”
“We will be doing much better when the SBA portal is up and running and, more importantly, when the funds begin to flow,” says Vittorio, “until then, the only bills I know of are the ones I have to pay.” I asked, “Is there anything you worry about?” “I worry that the funds will run out precipitously,” Vittorio said.
I asked if this bill will keep him in business. Vittorio answered, “Yes. That, coupled with a continued concerted effort on the part of state and local governments to enact policies and programs that help encourage and revitalize the city’s tourism and business communities within safe and science-based parameters. We need to encourage and incentivize people to return to the urban centers. We need to remind them what it is that makes New York the best city in the world. At any rate, I have never been prouder to be a New Yorker than I was during the height of the Covid crisis. We are the tip of the sword, the vanguard of the attack. We’re the Marines baby! And we made America proud. I have no doubt that we will return to take our place as the beacon of hope for the world.”
SATURDAY AT WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK in a pandemic, April 21, 2021. Photo by Roger Paradiso.