The relationship between small business and government during the pandemic has been an uneasy one.
“It was bad before. Now it’s worse,” said Councilman Mark Gjonaj (D-Bronx), during last Thursday’s tour of businesses on Fresh Pond Road in Glendale. “The city is not listening. They’re hearing the issues. They have not addressed the concern.”
Gjonaj, chairman of the Council’s Committee on Small Business, visited stores with Councilman Bob Holden (D-Middle Village), Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District President Ted Renz, Queens Chamber of Commerce President Tom Grech and Small Businesses Commissioner Jonnel Doris.
“For us, we’re here to help small business. That’s our job,” Doris said. “While we’re the government, we’re still their advocates.”
He said about 30 walking tours have been done around the city and though some changes in policy have been implemented because of feedback, Doris acknowledged “we have to rebuild their trust, too.”
Among the problems raised by elected officials and business owners around the city are the fines being imposed, sometimes with contradicting advice from city agencies.
“I don’t like when the government descends on businesses that were closed for so long and then they start fining them instead of warning them,” Holden said.
Grech believes one person needs to oversee everything, “kind of like a COVID czar.”
Gjonaj said store owners can be fined if a customer is not wearing a mask but believes that is unfair to the owner, saying that there have been attacks on people who are demanding masks be worn.
“They’re not policemen. They’re business people,” he said. “They’re working behind the counter. They’re sweating. They’re not supposed to act as enforcement. You can’t hold them reliable. You go tell someone with mental illness that they can’t enter because they don’t have a face mask. Let’s see how far that gets you.”
Grech said as he’s handed out masks around the borough, he’s been pleasantly surprised that, for the most part, everybody in and outside the stores are wearing them.
“There was sanitizer everywhere. People are following the rules and regulations but at the end of the day if we wait much longer to open some of these places ... there will be nothing to reopen come January,” he said.
Gjonaj noted a city comptroller report that said nearly one-third of the city’s small businesses may never reopen.
“We’re not doing anything more than making sure that we help them shutter their doors forever,” he said, adding, “The one concept that this city is not embracing right now is every dollar that you put into a small business will yield you a return on your investment through tax dollars, through jobs, through income tax, through sales tax — and when they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Holden wants to see the ropening progress and said he isn’t worried about noise or quality-of-life complaints rising from bars and restaurants. The lawmaker said concerns often come from Forest Park and other hangouts, but outdoor dining hasn’t led to any complaints.
“You’re probably going to get it but I don’t think we have as many in my district as they have in Manhattan, obviously,” Holden said.