A vacant storefront on Third Avenue near The Hub.

Business alliance seeks help from city and state

With the coronavirus causing layoffs and putting the survival of small Bronx businesses at risk, the Bronx Chamber of Commerce eagerly joined a plea from a city-wide business group for city and state help on everything from no-interest loans to tax relief.

Lisa Sorin, president of the Bronx chamber, said she was happy to sign an open letter from the five-borough Chamber Alliance to the city and state, seeking a variety of measures the groups said could help several businesses stay alive.

“I think the biggest issues are the loss of jobs, and how many businesses will survive this,” said Sorin.  “If we thought we were seeing vacant storefronts now, you could just imagine what it’ll look like afterwards.”

The food industry in the Bronx appears to be hardest hit by recent restrictions on public gatherings, Sorin said, noting that the Beatstro hip hop restaurant in Mott Haven has laid off 60 employees, and the nearby Great Performances catering company has furloughed hundreds.

The Chamber Alliance’s letter was issued Sunday, just hours before all bars, restaurants, night clubs, movie theaters, small theater houses and concert venues were ordered closed, and all state residents were urged to practice social distancing.

The measures the Alliance “strongly recommends” are:

1) Suspend the NYS sales tax for an initial period of six months and reduce the NYS business income tax by half for 2020;

2) Repeal New York City’s Commercial Rent Tax on small businesses; Table indefinitely any legislation related to a commercial vacancy tax or commercial rent control;

3) Suspend the plastic bag ban to maximize convenience and flexibility for consumers and retailers;

4) Repeal the City’s Fair Workweek Law, which imposes worker scheduling mandates on retailers and restaurants;

5) Expand the City’s proposed no-interest loan program to include any small business (less than 100 employees) that has experienced a quarterly decline in revenue, and increase the maximum loan amount to up to $250,000; Create a targeted no-obligation grant program for businesses that are required closed as a result of COVID-19;

6) Create a fund to support small businesses that undertake “deep cleanings” as a result of a confirmed employee COVID-19 infection;

7) Waive the March 30th sidewalk cafe consent fees and eliminate the 18% annual interest rate imposed on fees when restaurants opt to pay in multiple installments;

8) Place a moratorium on non-health related business violations and fines;

9) Expedite passage of a measure before the City Council that would cap third-party delivery fees by companies like Grubhub/Seamless at 10%;

10) Convene a state and city task force of small business and business associations, government agencies, and legislators, to continually reassess the impact of the virus on small businesses, and actions that might be needed to address evolving problems.

Sorin said the letter is the result of talk amongst the various chambers that began after last year’s business reform laws, but that had gained greater urgency amid the partial city shutdown.

The breadth of the issue is still to be grasped, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin warning that the new coronavirus could lead to unemployment rates shooting up to 20%.

While some restaurants will choose to stay open for take-out and delivery orders, not every restaurant is set up for that, and even then, the impact is proving uneven, Sorin reported.

“The regional and national [chains], the Popeye’s and McDonalds, people can walk up there, grab their food and walk out,” she said, but sit-down restaurants that rely on Happy Hour crowds and those leaving work are missing out on their main income stream.

Other retail outlets are taking a major hit too, with clothing stores and general stores seeing much less foot traffic, and people reluctant to spend on non-essential items.

“Nobody’s gonna go shopping for clothes or shoes during a crisis like this, because now you have so much unemployment and you have businesses that are trying to stay afloat, taxes are due this week, it’s just a lot,” said Sorin.