Comptroller Scott Stringer and Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz visited several restaurants and other stores in Elmhurst, which they said was the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the coronavirus crisis.
They were led on the tour by Queens foodie, blogger and author Joe DiStefano, who noted that even before the pandemic was declared, many immigrant businesses shut down in January.
“I’ve seen a lot of struggle in various mom-and-pop restaurants,” he said, “throughout Queens, but especially in Elmhurst.”
The tour kicked off at Little House Cafe, a Malaysian bakery and restaurant that shut down for two months and reopened in May. Jeremy Lee, son of owners Michael and Helen Lee, said the store hasn’t seen a lot of customers in the last few months.
“Customers mostly want to stay inside the store and eat, but since dining in is closed, business is not that good,” he said. “We dropped more than 50 percent in sales.”
Lee added that the price for goods is also increasing. His family has not paid rent for the two months that they were closed.
“The most useful thing for now is to manage to get a vaccine for the pandemic,” he said. “If that happens, then dining in will be available.”
Another restaurant they visited was Joju, a Vietnamese spot that has been on Broadway for nearly a decade. Owner Scott Wong said reopening back in May was difficult.
Wong noted that workers initially did not want to come back at the height of the pandemic. Now that they want to return, the store did not have enough resources to rehire everyone.
Prior to the tour, Stringer said while he believes Wall Street will come back, he’s more concerned about whether “Main Street” businesses will do the same.
“We’ve got to save Main Street,” he said. “We have to save the stores that were built up by immigrants from around the world.”
Last month, the comptroller unveiled a “Save Main Street” plan with more than two dozen recommendations on how to assist mom-and-pop shops like the ones he visited in Elmhurst.
His suggestions include providing tax incentives to support reopenings, repurposing city streets for community and business use, and giving businesses a “cure period” to allow them to address and fix violations rather than pay fines.
“We have to make sure the most vulnerable people in this city do not get left behind,” Stringer said. “We have to make sure people who saved a lifetime to open up a store don’t get lost in the rush to bring back the economy.”
Cruz not only gave each restaurant information about how her office can help, she also spoke about several pieces of legislation she has proposed in Albany to help small businesses reopen.
The Open for Business Act, which is sponsored by Cruz and State Senator Jamaal Bailey, would provide tax incentives to businesses for employing local residents in full or part-time positions for up to two years.
Another bill, the Commercial Lease Efficiency and Resolution (CLEAR) Path Forward Act, would provide a roadmap for landlords and tenants to negotiate a settlement, prevent litigation and avoid evictions.
“COVID-19 would become a legally binding reason to get out of that lease,” Cruz said, “or force the hand of the landlord to renegotiate the lease so they don’t lose the tenant.”
Two other pieces of legislation have not yet been introduced, but are in the works. The Protect Main Street Act would mandate commercial tenants and landlords attend a settlement conference to avoid unnecessary litigation.
The Save Merchants and Retail Tenants (SMART) Act would provide free legal services for small businesses adversely affected by the coronavirus to assist with recently expanded federal bankruptcy protections.
After the tour, Cruz said she “saw real hope in people’s eyes” despite some limitations, such as the delayed start of indoor dining. While the lawmaker said indoor dining is a possibility, she is also worried about spreading the virus.
“I’m just very concerned that if we don’t do it right, we are going to get sick again,” Cruz said. “I don’t want to see that happen because I think lots of businesses cannot take a second hit.”
Sounding a note of optimism, DiStefano added that he believes Queens, as well as the “soul of immigrant entrepreneurship,” cannot be kept down.
“New York City is not dead,” he said, “and Queens, one of the most vibrant communities, frankly the epicenter of the epicenter of culinary culture in New York City, is far from dead.”