Cold January coronavirus sends small businesses back in time

Three-quarters of businesses that responded to a Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce survey in early January said their holiday sales were lower than in previous years, giving them less cushion ahead of a slow month even the good years. Companies that responded to the survey included gyms, restaurants and retailers. Among them, 1 in 5 temporarily closed during the holidays, according to survey data, and 60% saw some of their employees sick. Municipal, state and local business groups have recently offered funds and support to help business owners get through until spring.

Still, the blow is hard to take, especially because of the relative unrest that preceded the current freeze, said Randy Peers, president and CEO of the Brooklyn chamber. “Just when many of our small businesses were hoping to make up for losses incurred throughout the pandemic,” he said, “they now face another uncertain winter as we head into 2022.”

Another indicator of ups and downs is metro ridership. In November and early December, estimated ridership hovered around 55% of its pre-2020 level, dropping to 75% on weekends. Since Christmas, it has remained in the 40% range. In Lower Manhattan, the number of pedestrians doubled in October compared to September’s figure, said Jessica Lappin, president of the Downtown Alliance. She added that the sidewalks are much quieter now.

“The emotional roller coaster has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic,” she said.

At Eugene & Co., Oxley says she tries to figure out why customers aren’t coming. “Is it because it’s after the holidays and they want to save money?” she said. “Because it’s really cold?” Or people who don’t want to eat inside,” even though she has a limited ability to make her staff feel safer?

The result is that she eliminated shifts. On particularly slow nights, she shuts down the server and takes over. “It’s about being creative and saving money where you can to get through the lean months,” she said.

At the Astoria Boutique clothing store, customer traffic is down, and even many regular customers have stopped spending, due to their own financial troubles, including job loss, owner Jamaal Bouidra said. Bouidra owes him seven months’ rent. His strategy for staying until sales pick up is to downsize his staff: just him and one other employee.

Some owners are refocusing their energy on additional lines of business that generated revenue in the spring of 2020, Lappin said.

“Businesses are more resilient in terms of attracting customers,” she said, “and I think there have been adaptations.”

Oxley said that although his goal in opening the restaurant was to create a community gathering place, the to-go cocktails were a boon to sales, especially the pre-mixed Negronis which sold for $60 for 10 glasses. Governor Kathy Hochul announced in her recent State of the State address that she would allow restaurants to bring back alcoholic beverages for takeout.

Oxley said she loves dehydrating ingredients, sometimes using them to flavor salt, and spends more time making that kind of specialty for her line of provisions. Specialty ingredient sales have been helpful, but they can’t sustain the business, she said.

Looking at the empty dining rooms of his restaurant in Queens and on Staten Island, owner Alejandro Nava pivots even further: he’s opening a takeout-only Mexican restaurant in Nassau County called Mala Madre. “It will be just for takeout, because it’s the novelty,” he said.

Nava wonders whether to close Cabo Mexican, his restaurant in Staten Island which he says is in a difficult position. Locals who are angry about the vaccination mandate won’t come, Nava said, but he fears that if he stops checking for proof of vaccination, government agencies will impose fines on the company.

“It creates a very difficult situation, forcing us to enforce vaccine cards,” he said.

Hochul said this week that the current wave of Covid-19 cases appeared to be easing. Business owners certainly know that the January cold will soon heat up. Additionally, the state recently announced that it will spend an additional $1 billion on various small business relief programs. Membership groups, including the Downtown Alliance, and even private companies such as Uber have released their own financial aid pots for small business owners.

But even the suggestion of some relief can’t pull many homeowners out of the New Year’s doldrums.

“Grants and applications — they don’t make it simple,” Nava said, pointing to a pile of forms and numbers needed to apply for most programs. “I’m not going to go crazy over this.”

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