street vendors in the bronx
For most street vendors at the Bronx Terminal Market, sales started to decline on Monday, March 9th.

The impact of the COVID-19 on street vendors and small businesses has been severe. Based on anecdotal information that the NYC Department of Small Business Services has received, small businesses have seen a decline in sales from 40 percent to 80 percent.

“We start hearing, late January early February, of declines of 40 to 50 percent, and then we start to hear alarming numbers in terms of 80 percent. These are mostly restaurants, catering houses, etcetera” said Gregg Bishop, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services said last week.

Street vendors have seen a sharper impact. “Most of [street] vendors we talked to in the past few days have expressed that their sales declined by an average of 60 to 80 percent,” said Mohamed Attia, Street Vendor Project’s Director, through email. “Some are staying home now and can’t go to work, but most are going out regardless, not that they want to, as they have to in order to survive. It’s a really tough decision that folks are making now, choosing between being at risk and starving!”

For most street vendors at the Bronx Terminal Market, sales started to decline on Monday, March 9th. Most of the street vendors in that spot reported at least a 50 percent reduction in sales. For example, a vendor of winter hats and other headwear said he used to sell approximately $200 per day, and after March 9th he just sold $50 worth. A corn elotes and tamales vendor also reported a 50 percent sales reduction, though, for him, the hit came over this past weekend.

“When the mayor decides to close these stores,” said one of the vendors pointing at the Bronx Terminal Market behind his cart, “then it will be when all of us are going to feel the real hit. It will be the end of our businesses because nobody is going to come by.”

Just a week after that black Monday, at around 4:30 p.m., a halal food cart owner said she has served only 16 customers that day; she added that on a regular weekday she usually has 50 to 60 customers. Contrary to some empty streets in downtown, on this corner, street vendors haven’t witnessed a reduction in the flow of people, though not many people are getting food from them.

The situation for many small businesses was even worse. For example, the NYC Department of Small Business Services’ press office said through email that East Manor in Flushing has closed and a large Dim Sum restaurant in Chinatown also has closed.  

“In various neighborhoods in Manhattan where vendors’ business rely on foot traffic by tourists, vendors aren’t making any business, other neighborhoods where the clientele are usually employees and workers around, vendors are affected by the absence of most people,” said Attia. And if this situation wasn’t unstable enough for them, they are still dealing with fines and tickets. 

On March 8, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will provide relief for small businesses that have seen a reduction in revenue as a result of  COVID-19. This program offers two incentives. One called “Employee Retention Grant” for businesses (including non-profits) with less than five employees to which the city will give a grant to cover 40 percent of payroll costs for two months to help retain employees. The eligibility criteria for the program are as follows:

  • Must be located within the five boroughs of New York City
  • Must demonstrate that the COVID-19 outbreak caused at least a 25% decrease in revenue
  • Must employ 1-4 employees in total across all locations
  • Must have been in operation for at least 6 months
  • Must have no outstanding tax liens or legal judgments.

The second program is called “Small Business Continuity Fund” for businesses with fewer than 100 employees who have seen sales decreases of 25 percent or more. They will be eligible for zero-interest loans of up to $75,000 to help mitigate losses in profit. The eligibility criteria for the program are as follows:

  • Must be located within the five boroughs of New York City
  • Must demonstrate that the COVID-19 outbreak caused at least a 25% decrease in revenue
  • Must employ 99 employees or fewer in total across all locations
  • Must demonstrate the ability to repay the loan
  • Must have no outstanding tax liens or legal judgments

Eligible owners should call 311 for assistance or can apply here

But after more than a week since the Mayor announcement, “applications have not yet opened so no one has received assistance yet. We are looking to open them this week. We have heard from hundreds of business owners from every industry,” said NYC Department of Small Business Services’ press office via email.

Moreover, as Attia emphasized, street vendors’ needs aren’t the best fit for these programs because they are “sole proprietors, but we’re looking forward to more programs that will meet the needs of the vending communities in this pandemic!” 

On a statement published on March 17, Street Vendor Project ask for an emergency relief for informal economy workers and other precariously employed workers and small business owners that included:

  • Waive all late penalties for late sales filings for NYS Department of Taxation and Finance which are due on March 20th   
  • Immediate suspension of New York Police Department, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Parks Department, and Department of Consumer Affairs enforcement of street vendor compliance violations – regardless of whether the vendor has a permit or a license.   
  • Waive outstanding tickets issued since January 2020, as vendors won’t be able to work for the foreseeable future.   
  • Create granting opportunities via NYC Small Business Services for low-income sole proprietors that street vendors and other small business owners are eligible to receive   
  • Ensure that eligibility is not dependent on commercial rent payments  
  • Allow for a mobile food vending license or permit, general merchandise license, or proof of quarterly sales tax filings to be sufficient proof of sole proprietorship   
  • Allow for proof of income being at or below federal poverty levels as appropriate documentation of low-income status  
  • Ensure street vendors and delivery workers are included in NYC Department of Education child care plan for frontline workers   
  • Ensure workers who are employed by food cart or truck owners, including undocumented workers, are eligible for unemployment insurance and any forthcoming emergency relief funds 

It’s also unclear yet how many small businesses and/or street vendors can benefit from the city’s financial assistance and if there is a cap for this financial assistance. “This information has not yet been released”, said NYC Department of Small Business Services’ press office.

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