When Alejandro Osorio’s mother, the founder of the restaurant Arepa Lady in Jackson Heights, turned her food cart business into a brick and mortar business, he thought they were done worrying about the whims of Mother Nature. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Arepa Lady, forced to serve clients at outdoor tables to comply with pandemic restrictions, was once again at her mercy.
“If it’s raining, we don’t sell anything that day. If it’s hot, we don’t sell anything. if it’s too windy, we don’t sell anything,” said Osorio, who now runs the restaurant. “We’re running into the same issues we were running into when we ran the food cart.”
Arepa Lady is just one of countless small businesses in the epicenter of the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic –– the Queens neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona –– that is struggling to survive in the pandemic economy experts, lawmakers and local small business owners said during the virtual forum Helping Hard-Hit Businesses in Corona, Elmhurst & Jackson Heights Recover from This Crisis hosted by the Center for an Urban Future on Wednesday morning. As fall approaches, with its colder weather and the looming prospect of a resurgence of the virus, the small business owners are left not knowing what to do, they said.
The message from the participants on the forum’s two panels was united: without help from the government, businesses in Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst are in dire straits. The challenges posed to them by the pandemic leave the future uncertain and their prospects dim.
As high density neighborhoods filled with multigenerational families, many of which are immigrants, and predominantly family-owned service oriented businesses without the possibility of remote work, Jackson Heights, Corona, and Elmhurst were uniquely positioned to be hit hard by the pandemic and the economic fallout from the shutdown, said Nancy Carin, the executive director of the Business Outreach Center Network said during the forum’s first panel.
“It’s been a perfect storm,” Carin said.
Many of the business owners have family members that got sick or got sick themselves. They are reluctant to reopen and risk their loved ones, who most likely work in the business as well, contracting the virus. And those who brave it, are facing the harsh reality that with less foot traffic comes less business.
City Councilmember Francisco Moya (D-East Elmhurst, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Corona) one of the lawmakers who participated in the forum’s second panel, echoed Carin’s point. The businesses that have reopened are struggling to earn enough to stay alive.
“They are trying to get back into helping the local economy by opening up again but that’s going very slowly,” he said.
The city council has worked to provide short term relief by regulating third party applications that charge high fees to restaurants for delivery, or increasing protections for commercial tenants so they don’t get evicted. But what is really needed to save small businesses is federal funding, he said.
“The city is suffering, the state is suffering because we can’t get this administration to do the right thing and allow the states and the municipalities to be able to get the funding that they need in order to protect small business owners,” he said.
Practical conversations about how to help small businesses need to happen on a leadership level, said State Assemblymember Catalina Cruz (D-Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights). And so far they aren’t.
“You have the mayor, the governor and the president more interested in fighting each other rather than having a conversation about what are the issues on the ground and how do we help people,” she said.
And it’s the people like the small business owners in their districts who get left out to dry.
“The help isn’t coming in the way that the people expect it to come,” Cruz said.