On September 10, dozens of small business owners gathered to call for immediate commercial rent relief and other assistance to recover from the COVID-19 crisis that has left many of them in deep crisis. In attendance were: Jaime-Faye Bean, Queens Together, MC; Roseann McSorley, owner, Katch Astoria; Tina Maria Oppedisano, Il Bracco; Queens Borough President Democratic nominee Donovan Richards; NYS Senator Michael Gianaris; NYS Senator Jessica Ramos; NYS Assembly Democratic nominee Zohran Mamdani; NYC Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer; Sheila Lewandowski, Executive Director, the Chocolate Factory Theater; Shawn Dixon, Otis and Finn Barber Shops; Frank Arcabascio, 30th Avenue Business Association; Rick Echevarria, Brooklyn Small Business Activist; Jonathan Forgash, Queens Together; and Rick White, Astoria Bier & Cheese.

With 80+ hour weeks being the norm for most Queens’ mom-and-pop business owners, it is rare to see a critical mass of business owners gathering together to advocate for themselves. Yet on September 10, dozens of small business owners gathered to call for immediate commercial rent relief and other assistance to recover from the COVID-19 crisis that has left many of them in deep crisis. Organized by Western Queens Small Business Council, the group was joined by small business owners, business advocates, and Business Improvement District (BID) directors from throughout the borough to lead a call to action to save local business owners from economic collapse.

New York State’s arts and cultural industries generate $114.1 billion to the state economy, employ 462,584, and award $46.7 billion in compensation, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Culture and the Arts is over 7% of New York State’s GDP.

Founders of the Western Queens Small Business Council, New York State Senators Michael Gianaris and Jessica Ramos, small business owners, BID directors, and NYC Council Members Donovan Richards and Jimmy Van Bramer gathered to express the frustrations of small, storefront business owners and the impact of COVID-19 on their operations, and how government can help them prepare for the next wave of the virus.

“We are in the midst of a small business catastrophe the likes of which we’ve never seen,” said Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris. “If we don’t provide immediate relief to these neighborhood institutions, they are unlikely to survive and the character of our city will change for the worse.”

“New York City and our neighbors are what they are because of small businesses,” said New York City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer. “From mom and pop shops to independent theaters, these spaces liven our streets and bring character to our community. The Governor must cancel commercial and tenant rents, and give working class New Yorkers a fighting chance.”

The group called on their elected officials and stakeholders to implement the following:

1) Definitive commercial rent relief. “As small business owners most of us carry the burden of two rents, as both residential and commercial tenants.”

2) A plan to allow expanded indoor dining.

3) A plan to allow outdoor performance to happen. “The city and state need plans to reopen our performing arts spaces, even at lower capacity. NYC and NYS are world capitals for cultural activities that employ over 466,000 representing almost 8% of the State’s GDP, and yet this essential part of our economy is being ignored when it comes to guidelines for reopening.”

4) Immediate, streamlined collaboration between city agencies to ensure small businesses are fully supported throughout this crisis.

5) Fund a new round of NYC Department of Small Business Services disaster grants and loans with improved guidelines. “The first round of funding was not conceived with our Queens small business community in mind, and our most vulnerable businesses either didn’t quality or did not receive adequate or timely information or assistance to access the program.”

6) “We need our elected officials to put their full weight to pressure the insurance industry to allow our businesses immediate, expedited access to business interruption insurance claims. Reactivate the State Senate committees so the appropriate bills can move to the Senate floor for a vote.”

7) Incentivize continued investment in the small business sector.

8) Federal government and elected officials must take immediate action to improve and expand the PPP program, and to guarantee EIDL Advance grants of $10,000 for eligible small businesses as originally intended in the CARES Act, to enhance the Employee Retention Tax Credit to help retain jobs, and to fund the Wicker/Sinema Restaurant Rescue Fund to provide a safety net for our independent food businesses nationwide.

“How are New York State and New York City going to recover and rebound without the arts? Performing arts venues… were the first to be shut down and still are not allowed to open,” said Sheila Lewandowski, Executive Director of The Chocolate Factory. “We employ people. We attract local, national and international tourists. We have rent backed up and the artists have rent to pay on their apartments. We need guidelines and support to open safely to help bring people back to our city and state.”

“Small businesses are at the heart of healthy neighborhoods, and even throughout this crisis we’ve seen small businesses that are struggling still giving back to the community when they have so little to give. Our representatives need to understand that if we continue to ignore the impending disaster of small business closures, we are looking at tens of thousands of job losses in Queens alone, the destruction of our neighborhood fabric, and the decimation of livable Queens communities,” said Jaime Bean, co-founder, Queens Together.

“Small businesses are also families,” said Roseann McSorley, owner of Katch Astoria and Chair of Senator Gianaris’ Small Business Advisory Committee. “We aren’t struggling only with our store rents, we are also struggling with our own home rents and costs of raising our families, and when a business closes its doors, it means dozens more families are faced with personal hardship. We have done everything we can for the past four months to stay afloat, but we are running out of lifelines and desperately need our government to take action to save Queens’ small businesses.”

“Immigrant small business owners, many who are Covid survivors themselves, are struggling to keep their businesses open,” said Rick Echevarria, Brooklyn Small Business activist. “They are going into deep personal debt to pay rent and to operate their businesses. Many are surrendering, more and more businesses are closing. The need for rent relief to save our immigrant small businesses is urgent!”

“Cultural organizations and small businesses are the hearts of our neighborhoods and the economic engine of our city,” said Lucy Sexton, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Culture & Arts. “We need to open the streets and parks to music, dance, theater, and art of all kinds – benefiting the artists and the communities! And we need meaningful rent relief so that our vital cultural groups and small businesses are here