Roseann McSorley, owner of the gastropub Katch Astoria, said every corner in her neighborhood has a closed business, including on Newtown Avenue where her bar is located.
“We’re getting killed,” she said. “We are the last man standing on this street.”
Like many small businesses, McSorley said Katch not only has three to four months of rent piling up, but also electric and supply bills to pay. She warned that without more help, many businesses like hers face the threat of closing for good.
“There is a catastrophic wave coming,” she added. “We need to kill the virus, not small businesses.”
McSorely was one of several small business owners who joined State Senator Michael Gianaris last Wednesday outside Katch Astoria to rally support for measures like rent forgiveness.
In March, Gianaris introduced legislation that would forgive 90 days’ worth of rent for commercial and residential tenants if they lost work or closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the bill received more than 20 sponsors quickly, it also ran into opposition, falling short of the 32 votes required. The Astoria state senator said he’s trying to convince more and more legislators to support the measure.
“As people are realizing the scope of the problem, we’re getting more and more support for this kind of aggressive response,” he said. “It’s going to be necessary sooner or later. It should have already been done.
“Unfortunately, it’s going to be the death of some of these businesses that is going to make some people in government realize we have to take this kind of action,” Gianaris added.
According to a recent report released by the New York Hospitality Alliance, 83 percent of New York’s restaurants, bars and nightclubs did not pay their full rent in July. Nearly 40 percent surveyed could not pay anything at all.
“Not nearly enough has been done to help our small businesses survive the pandemic,” the state senator said. “Now, we’re starting to feel even more dramatically the consequences of that inaction.”
Shawn Dixon, the owner of Otis & Finn, a barbershop with two locations in Long Island City and one in Greenpoint, employs 13 barbers across the three sites. He said small businesses operate like a family as much as they do commercial enterprises.
He said he started his shop to create an inclusive and welcoming space for all members of the community to come together and meet their neighbors.
That’s why when Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio called on businesses to close in the name of public health and to protect community members and workers, Otis & Finn obliged, even though it created “an extreme amount of uncertainty.”
“We went over three months, 95 days, with almost no revenue at all,” Dixon said. “But we did that because we believed our leaders when they said we’re in this together.”
After five months, like many of their neighbors, the barbershop is three months behind on rent. Dixon said small businesses like his have been left “holding the bag.”
“We’re being asked to carry the burden of jumpstarting this city’s, and ultimately this country’s, economy on our own backs,” he added. “We’re being asked to eat our losses and figure out by ourselves how to pay back three months of rent.”
Dixon noted that rent is one of the biggest challenges for small businesses, and that rent relief would help them survive.
“With each passing day, and each new rent bill due, I can tell you hope is running out,” he said. “What’s happening to us is not fair.
“We lived up to our end of the bargain, we closed our doors so this city could stay alive,” Dixon added. “So now to let us and our neighbors fail for doing what we were asked is wrong. It’s immoral and unconscionable.”
Another small business barely hanging on is Astoria Express Transit, a school bus company owned by the family of Jennifer Gualotuna. The company has served local families for more than three decades, but has not operated in more than six months.
Gualotuna said her family is waiting to see if schools will return in September.
“Our landlord is already bothering and insisting that we give him the money that we owe him,” she said. “It’s over $5,000 that we don’t have. As much as we tried to ask for help, nothing has come through.”
The situation has been so dire that her family has used their unemployment money directly for their business. She said they haven’t saved a dime and are running out of money.
Gualotuna warned that if they don’t begin service in September, her bus company can’t continue, and they will have to break the bad news to their longtime customers.
“We don’t know what else to do,” she said. “We’re left up in the air.”
The economic hardships have extended to local nonprofit organizations as well. Sheila Lewandowski, executive director of The Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City, said on March 13 they shut their doors despite having a show in production.
Their artist had only been in residence for three weeks, but suddenly there was no audience and no shows.
“The set sat there empty, costumes strewn on the floor, lights hung,” Lewandowski said.
The theater had six other shows scheduled between March and the end of June that were all cancelled. Lewandowski said they paid all of the artists, even though they had no box office receipts. Their grants were also cut as a result of the pandemic.
In the meantime, The Chocolate Factory Theater’s rent continued, and other bills like electric and insurance have gone up.
Lewandowski said landlords have to be forced to forgive rent.
“A lot of artists have left New York City because they can’t afford to stay here,” she said. “Government is supposed to protect us.”
Gianaris, who runs a Small Business Advisory Council headed by McSorley, noted that the bill not only covers residential and commercial tenants, but also small homeowners. Those are the people who are most in need, he said.
“The idea is to start at the bottom of the economic ladder,” he said, “then push the economic problem up to those who can handle it and afford it.”