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The upside of New York’s sudden, traumatic but imperative restaurant closures is: I finally found some toilet paper.
I don’t mean to be flip about what’s going on here—not about the coronavirus pandemic and its struggling victims, or about the workers and business owners who are going to be fighting for their economic lives. Our local toilet paper shortage is the least of it. (But there is one.) Tonight I stopped by my favorite local restaurant, run by my two best friends here in Harlem, to make sure they’re going to be OK, as they closed.
And the truth is, they have no idea. But they gave me some toilet paper, which I haven’t had in five days (thankfully, I did have Kleenex). Whatever happens, they’re not going to use it in their restaurant for a while.
They might be among the lucky ones. They have a small place, they can ramp up their takeout business, which is allowed, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to permit off-premise alcohol sales, however much it’s kowtowing to special interests and the desire to plump sales tax revenue, is probably going to help them. (I’m not going to identify this place; I still intend to have a private life, when this is all over. God willing.)
My friends are going to try to make it work. But they don’t know how many employees they’ll need, or can afford to pay. Their annual liquor license payment is almost due: Will it be deferred? Their lease is up shortly: What about that? A week ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration announced emergency loans of $75,000 for small businesses; it’s not clear how to apply, or if the City, which is trying to send workers home, will have any way to pay.
The government has been faster with shutdown orders—even though, in my opinion, they’re belated—than in coming up with ways to protect workers, physically and financially, as well as the small businesses that employ them. My friends’ problems are multiplied by the thousands all across the city, and their problems will multiply, too.
This is already a tough time for businesses in my Harlem neighborhood. Two restaurants recently closed, as did a small skin-care business down the block, run by a black woman entrepreneur beloved around here. Another restaurant nearby was set to shut its doors this week, after being mysteriously closed for a while, but I’d heard that it was going to be taken over by a downtown restaurant expanding uptown. Now, I don’t see that takeover happening anytime soon; I expect to see another closing.
It’s likely going to be another empty, shuttered storefront—like Bier International, one of the first places that opened as Harlem began to attract new business, which closed more than a year ago, and like Organic Forever, the longtime Harlem health food store that closed more than three years ago, leaving more empty space. The coffee shop down the block from me had a sign on it Monday: “Closed indefinitely.” Friends who know the owner think “indefinitely” could become permanent.
I wrote above: “as Harlem began to attract new business.” I could have written: “as Harlem began to gentrify.” I know I’m a gentrifier; still, I’ve never loved a neighborhood more. The closing of bars and restaurants could be the secret weapon of anti-gentrification—for better or worse. And I’d say, probably worse. But then, of course, I would.
Most of the businesses here support local people, and local workers. It’s going to be eerie to watch many of them shutter, which I have to assume they will. I saw several small restaurants here that didn’t even bother to open on Monday, given the order to close that came Sunday night. It’s eroding what makes New York New York. The density is the point.
I’ve lived up here five years now. There are people, in my building and on the street, that I hug every time I see them. That’s the kind of neighborhood it is. Lately, we’ve had to stop the hugging. Lately, I haven’t seen the 3-year-old on my floor who runs down the hall and jumps into my arms when she sees me. I picked her up a week ago; do I have to stop her now? I heard her outside my door this morning, and to miss her, I delayed walking my dog, Sadie.
Lucky Sadie, she’s getting more walks than ever. But less petting. If people ask, of course I let them pet her, and if people let me, I pet their dogs. I’d sooner risk catching coronavirus than deny my dog, or other dogs, the love they deserve. But lately, fewer people are asking to pet her.
Make no mistake: The closing of bars in New York is long overdue. My sentimental side hoped restaurants could stay open, with the requisite 50 percent reduction in capacity and responsible social distancing. But I knew that wasn’t going to work. Even Monday night, with the lights going down in New York, my favorite restaurant had six people at the tiny bar, ranging in age from roughly 40 to barely 21, drinking and laughing and sitting shoulder to shoulder. They were loud and obnoxious, ultimately falling over everybody. Breathing on one another, and everybody close to them, is what I’m trying to say. I assumed they were old friends, out for the city’s last call.
They had just met. I’m ashamed to say: I fucking hated them, for putting my social distancing at risk. But they were New York, too. (And of course, I’d put myself at risk, by going out, to support my friends.)
I went home and got Sadie, and walked uptown. The restaurants were not closing at 8. I kind of loved that about my neighborhood. But I’m also kind of glad they’ll be forced to close tomorrow. I don’t know what will be here when we’re all allowed to go out again. At least I have toilet paper. For now.