The Day the Village Stood Still: (Part 4): The Plague and Pestilence

The Plague and Pestilence

 07/04/2020        Monthly Columns

By Roger Paradiso

The plague is still with us. It is a natural born killer. In addition to researching other viral and bacterial killers, scientists, doctors, and disease control laboratories around the world are searching for a cure and vaccine for COVID-19. Until these are found, the Village will be lost in the fog of fear, despair, hope, and charity.

LA LANTERNA DI VITTORIO owners Vittorio (left) and Victor are “virus busters” with their new fogging machines, which will be used every night to disinfect the restaurant. Photo by Roger Paradiso.

The pestilence has been caused by the same sins of the past and present that caused the racism, greed, and a lack of empathy towards our neighbors that have provoked the recent marches and protests. There are fires in the night and death in day’s light. We heard stories from our ancestors of deadly plagues like small pox, polio and HIV. We heard stories of the horror of war in our own country. Now, we know about the COVID-19 virus and a new kind of war at home.

This article is part four of a series that brings us into the heart of the West Village.

When I last left Jamal, the owner of Village Music World—one of the few remaining “record stores” in the West Village—he was searching for ways to stay in business. “In my own opinion, we have to save small businesses… I’ve been looking for support from banks, investors, SBA private lenders, and many more. So far, I can say nothing solid about the above, even though some issues got fixed, such as the PPP—though it was unfairly distributed, it does still help the cause. Thank you for your help PPP. The most important skill in NYC is knowing how to keep a small business running. We all know the overhead to maintain a small shop, LOTS AND LOTS OF RENT.”

Jamal got less than what he asked for from the PPP. He spends a lot of time alone in his store, cleaning and preparing for the day when he can bring customers in again. He can’t get most of his former employees back because they make too much on their enhanced unemployment. In other words, they make more than they made before the pandemic. Does that make sense? So even though Jamal has gotten a partial PPP, he will have trouble finding employees who want to risk their health before we find a vaccine or cure. They can make more money staying home collecting unemployment. Only Washington could have concocted something as half-baked as this scenario.

The first PPP was a band-aid to stop some of the bleeding. It was not a well-thought-out bill. It ended up providing money for the banks and the big companies. The small businessperson, defined as one who employs ten people or fewer, was left out. The second PPP started to reach them, but it was only another band-aid.

Most of the people I have talked to say we need a bigger plan. The Marshall Plan resurrected Europe after the devastation of World War II. Back then, we were dealing with bombed-out cities and infrastructure in Europe. Now, we are dealing with a shattered economy and a death toll over 120,000 (and increasing) due to a plague. Hello Washington, we need a Marshall-type plan to revive the USA.

In the middle of all our troubles with this plague we have had protests across the nation regarding the racist and senseless killing of George Floyd. Unfortunately, at any protest demonstration there are bad actors who want to politically charge the situation for their own political gain. There are also those who want to loot, riot, and burn down buildings to release anger or greed. Jim Drougas who has a bookstore on Carmine Street was a victim of this. He reported, “An eyewitness saw a car drive up to my storefront well after the protestors had gone home. Two women came out of the car with hammers and shattered my windows, then they drove off into the night. Fortunately, they didn’t take any of my books.” Jim is trying to survive this pandemic and he did not welcome having to spend thousands to repair his windows while his store is shuttered and business income is zero. His future is in doubt as rent keeps adding up month after month, and his subtenants have fled the city.

I watched footage of the protests in Washington DC after our president threatened peaceful protestors and ordered that they be tear-gassed so that he could have a clear path to St. John’s Church where he did a photo op with a bible held upside down. He made himself look like a banana republic dictator. Where is our leadership?

That very night, I got a text from Nick the Greek. Nick owns the great Cinema Village, the oldest continuously running art theater in Manhattan. He also owns two other theaters, which are the movie house in Bay Ridge called the Alpine, the oldest theater in New York, and the Cinemart, the oldest theater in Queens. He loves them, and his bar, but he is bleeding from having to pay city real estate taxes. Nick says, “I am a small landlord in the East Village with a bar and five apartments. However, the main income comes from the bar. I was kind enough to work with tenants and give them time to pay back-rent (pre-COVID-19). They are now taking full advantage of the courts, which are not taking any eviction cases, and have stopped making any payments at all. And since courts will be backed up even after reopening, they will likely get away with more than a year’s + rent, which helps me pay real estate taxes and water bills. This is a complete disaster. How can I pay $800,000 in property taxes for my three neighborhood cinemas and a bar when the amounts I received from SBA are less than half that?”

If you consider a Marshall Plan approach to saving the Village and the rest of the country, you wonder why we don’t make a deal with the landlords that is fair. Surely, we have enough economic experts who could figure out something. Instead of a band-aid approach, we can cure the rent problem by making rent disappear off the books for a period of time—from March to December of 2020. That would help everyone.

I talk to Tory at The Half Pint on West Third Street and Vittorio at La Lanterna di Vittorio on MacDougal Street. They both ask why the federal government, courts, and regulators can’t make the insurance companies cover the loss of income from the pandemic. Right now, this is being treated as an exclusion similar to a nuclear attack or war. But this is a viral pandemic combined with a government-ordered shut-down and it should be covered.

Vittorio says, “This is the big plan. The government bails out the insurance companies. In return, those companies cover both business owners and landlords for loss of income. It’s a win-win and helps all of us dig out of a big hole.” This makes sense, doesn’t it?

Says Nick the Greek, “Due to no fault of our own we are obligated to follow the city’s mandate to shut down. Under these conditions, how come the New York City Dept. of Finance is not handling the amounts due from small Mom-and-pop landlords fairly? Federal, state, and city agencies need to support the NYC Dept of Finance to allow property taxes to be paid over a period of time.”

An email from Jamal states, “When a small business is already four months behind in rent, things get tough. The average rent in NYC is roughly $10,000 a month. I took it upon myself to investigate what the average rent of small shops in my neighborhood is and it came out to $15,000 or above. Now imagine the loss of sales and the price of utilities such as electricity, phone, etc. that I have to keep up with. We did not even mention taxes, insurance, and much more… So, I really believe that most businesses deserve at least an approval of a federal loan of $100,000 with a low interest rate. I believe small businesses are what make New York City great. We give the city diversity and importance. Save the small businesses of New York so the small businesses can save New York.”

Treat everyone as you expect to be treated. This simple thought, codified in all transactions in life, will end the plague and pestilence—now, and surely those that are forecast for the future. All the tenants ask me why America can help rebuild other countries but not their own?