Local lawmakers are deeply troubled by the prospect of two grocery stores closing in the heart of Astoria, worrying that the loss of stores will pose twin tragedies: depriving residents of a neighborhood staple and a desperately needed source of jobs in a plague ravaged economy.
The closures of the Key Food at 22-15 31st and the Best Market at 37th Street and 20th Avenue come at a time when grocery stores and the jobs they supply are more important than ever because of the hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the lawmakers said. The loss of the two grocery stores will lead to increased lines and crowding if there are increased COVID-19 cases in the fall and will contribute to the already high levels of employment caused by the pandemic, the lawmakers said.
“What we’re experiencing in northern Astoria is a microcosm of an issue all across this city,” said City Councilmember Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria, East Elmhurst, part of Long Island City, Rikers Island and part of Woodside), who said his office was committed to working with the city, grocery store unions, the community to make sure Astoria has access to both food and jobs.
The Key Food is set to permanently close its doors in October when its lease is up. The store tried to reach a deal with its landlord, Jenel Real Estate, which plans to demolish the building and build a three story Target but they couldn’t reach one. Key Food filed a WARN notice with the NYS Department of Labor that it was going to have to lay off it’s employees when it closes. At the moment it is unclear what, if anything, will replace it.
Queens County Politics reached out to Jenel Real Estate and UFCW Local 1500, the union that represents the employees at Key Food, for comment but did not hear back.
Meanwhile, the Best Market at 37th Street and 20th Avenue is closing in mid-August and will be replaced by a Lidl grocery store. However, the new grocery store won’t open until the new year leaving a months-long gap with no store at all.
On the other hand, Best Market is expected to close mid-August. It’s a temporary closure and the building will be remodeled into a Lidl supermarket while it’s closed. But it won’t be ready to reopen until early next year.
According to a spokesperson for Lidl, the company has offered all team members from the closing Best Market jobs at the new store.
Last week, Constantinides, State Senator Jessica Ramos (D-of Corona, East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and parts of Astoria and Woodside) and Assembly Member Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria and parts of Long Island City), sent a letter to Michael Hirschhorn, President of Jenel Real Estate, and A&H Acquisitions Corp., their development partner asking for the developer to identify the grocery store that’s set to replace Key Food.
“You mentioned that you are in talks with another major supermarket chain to replace Key Food,” said the letter. “We would like to know who that is. It’s important to know which retailer could be calling Astoria home in the near future.”
The letter recalls an earlier discussion to offer Key Food a short-term lease to continue operating. It continues to say the importance of the supermarket for the community. It’s been conveniently located at Ditmars Boulevard, where the N/W subway lines end. Many Astorians get off this station and buy their groceries, it said.
And Key Food has a strong commitment with organized labor.
“Union labor is America’s backbone. With every union job that’s lost, we widen the wealth gap and help the rich get richer,” said the letter. “That’s something we must tirelessly fight against because every drop in the bucket matters”
During the pandemic, UFCW Local 1500 provided PPE equipment and hazard pay to its union employees, the letter said.
The letter then mentioned how important grocery stores and supermarkets were during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One million New Yorkers experienced food insecurity before the pandemic. The number has doubled since then.
The lines to get the grocery stores were long from March until June. It became difficult to find eggs, flour and milk. This desperate situation could repeat itself in the fall if there is a resurgence of the virus, they said, and they requested that the Key Foods lease be extended.
“We understand that we’re in uncharted territory and even the best epidemiologist can’t predict the virus’ course,” said the letter. “But the thought of taking a supermarket offline this October is a scenario we don’t want to contemplate.”