Two days before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced New York State On PAUSE — a policy mandating non-essential workers remain at home — Tom Birchard made the tough decision to temporarily close his popular East Village restaurant, Veselka.
Known for serving pierogi in the East Village 24 hours a day, Veselka is a favorite among New Yorkers, especially NYU students, as two NYU dorms are located less than five-minutes walking distance from the establishment.
“There was a part of me that wanted to stay open just for our loyal fans,” Birchard said. “But our employees were concerned about coming to work and facing the public every day.”
Birchard is not alone in his decision. Many businesses across the city were affected as New York City rapidly became the United States’ coronavirus epicenter. And with the NYS on PAUSE policy extended to April 15 as of Sunday, restaurant owners are looking to government officials for answers.
To stay on top of the rapid updates, Birchard, like many New Yorkers, tunes in to the Governor’s daily briefings on CNBC.
“I’ve never been a huge Cuomo fan, but I’ve been inspired by how he’s been handling this,” Birchard said. “In this situation, my general perspective is he’s been doing a good job. My wife and I go out of our way to watch his briefings every day.”
The number of confirmed cases in New York City has risen to 33,768 as of Sunday, March 29. Altogether, New York State has almost 60,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Shutting down nonessential business may slow the spread of the virus, while inevitably striking a blow to businesses and tenants who might barely make enough to pay their bills month to month. According to a 2019 survey, only 40% of Americans have enough money saved to weather a thousand dollar emergency expense, which is minor compared to the income disruption caused by COVID-19.
Birchard said he’s confident his business will be able to reopen, but he fears the financial strain his employees will suffer.
“The most hurtful thing about all this is all my employees who have been so loyal to us suddenly having no income,” he said.
To aid tenants, New York State has issued a moratorium on all evictions until June 20, meaning that while rent will still be due, no tenants can be evicted from their homes or places of business. This is a lifeline to business owners who run on slim profit margins, but it’s possible that many businesses still won’t be able to reopen when the crisis has passed without further government intervention.
Three days after the eviction moratorium went into force, a bill was proposed in the State Senate that would also place a 90-day suspension on rent and some mortgage payments for those who lost employment or their business due to the restrictions on non-essential commerce.
“That is theft of services,” New York landlord David Lochow said in an email to WSN. “Low-income tenants—all of mine [sic]—can’t get loans to pay rent, have no savings, are the first to be let go at jobs… they are the most at risk. But they also have no chance of catching up any back rent. The eviction courts will be full after this virus.”
Most of Lochow’s tenants are nurses or other essential workers, so their income will not be affected or covered by any rent relief bill passed. For the others facing unemployment, he said he wants to work with them on a case by case basis to forgive some of their rent. Lochow also hopes that in the future, the local government will subsidize some of the utilities and property taxes for landlords who will lose income.
“These are worldwide problems,” Lochow continued. “I have read what others are doing and adapted our strategy with these concepts. Tenants have problems, landlords have problems… if we each take a part of the load we all will be better in the long run.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 20, 2020, print edition. Email Nick Mead at [email protected]