Op-Ed: With small businesses on the brink, City Council needs to act now

Brent O’Leary


Small businesses are at the heart of every community —  they’re the well-known and well-loved cornerstones that bring neighbors together and persist throughout time. Our city would not be the special place it is without its independent restaurants, bakeries and shops. 

Even before COVID-19 swept our city, forcing businesses to juggle indefinite closure with the world-changing effects of a pandemic, our small businesses faced a crisis. Predatory landlords looking for large windfalls put decades-old mom-and-pops and new startups alike at risk of closure with rapid and extreme rent increases all over the city. In these conditions, businesses were already just scraping by.

As we head into the holiday season nearly nine months into this pandemic, our small businesses are now teetering on the very edge of survival.

 “Since COVID, we have been working double as hard for half the revenue,” said Eric Barthel, owner of Cooldown Juice. “We went from comfortable to deciding which bills to pay. We are trying to stay afloat.”

He and his shop are not alone. Countless businesses across the city and the country have seen the revenue they used to count on completely vanish, and are struggling to recover.

We can’t afford to lose our small businesses, which means we can’t afford to do nothing. If we do, more than just the businesses themselves are in danger; their employees, their employees’ families and our city’s entire economy and tax base are, too, with a potential for a ripple effect throughout our communities, families and economies. 

Businesses shutting down and people staying home saved lives. Now, we need a plan to save our businesses. 

A strong plan, at minimum, should include cash grants for those businesses that were forced to close and tax abatements to reduce costs in the long term. 

Critically, rent must be canceled for small businesses; any unpaid rent for the months they were closed or reopening should never come due. If businesses can’t pay their rent, they won’t be able to survive. Landlords haven’t been a source of support, despite the fact that not being able to pay rent is the fault of the pandemic, not of the businesses themselves. 

“The most difficult part has been the lack of support by landlords. Being restricted to 25 percent capacity is hard enough. And we’ve been very serious about keeping our clientele safe. Lots of money invested in protocols,” said Corey Lange, co-owner of Solid State Bar. And yet there is “zero help from landlords,” Lange added. “It’s frustrating. Especially because we’re in it together. If I fail, we both fail.”

We can’t afford to leave businesses without support as they face the possibility of shutting their doors forever. We have to take action to provide rent relief and other financial support now.

Most importantly, we need to give our businesses the stability they have been deprived of for years, and the best way to do that is to guarantee every small business 10-year leases with the ability to renew. This will help them get back on their feet, since longer terms and guaranteed renewal would newly give them access to financing that could make all the difference in their recovery from COVID-19.

All of these steps are possible, and the City Council has the power to get much of this done right now. The Small Business Jobs Survival Act contains many of these provisions and could give small businesses the tools they need to survive. But, this critical solution has been sitting in the Council for years without being put up for a vote, even with the support of 29 City Council members. 

Shuttered businesses cannot alone be expected to pay the price of shutdowns. Leaving them without support at this moment risks causing significant damage to communities in the wake of mass closures. We all, including landlords and government leaders, need to work together to share the burden of saving our small business community from permanent decimation before it’s too late.

The most important action that can be taken today would be passing the SBSJA. The speaker should put it up for a vote now.

Brent O’Leary is an attorney, community leader, and candidate for City Council in District 26, which covers Long Island City, Sunnyside, Woodside, and parts of Astoria.

More from Around New York