Latino restaurant owners in New York City struggle to stay afloat amid coronavirus crisis

"I'm taking a risk here remaining open, because it's better to make some money than absolutely nothing," says a restaurant owner in the city with the most U.S. cases.
A food cart selling traditional Mexican food in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York
A food cart selling traditional Mexican food in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York on Feb. 14, 2017.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

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By Nicole Acevedo

It's a new normal for New York City restaurant owner Sonia Henriquez, as the city that never sleeps has come to a virtual standstill amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It's a reality she's never seen in her life, she said, full of fear and uncertainty.

Every 15 to 20 minutes, her staff is disinfecting the tables, chairs, floors and doorknobs at Floridita, the 24-hour restaurant she has owned for over 16 years in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan.

"Most of my clients were people that have been coming here daily for years to either get breakfast on their way to work or a late-night bite after midnight," Henriquez told NBC News in Spanish.

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But business has gone down significantly since the city urged its residents to practice social distancing, closing its schools and urging that people work from home if possible.

New York City has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the country.

Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order to restrict restaurants to delivery and takeout only in an effort to ban gatherings of more than 50 people.

"It was a dramatic change for us. We're still open 24 hours and doing deliveries until 11 p.m. My goal is to remain open and keep half of my staff working unless authorities say otherwise," Henriquez said.

Corner store and bodega owners who depended on the foot traffic created when schools were open have seen a decline of over 50 percent, said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y.

Henriquez said restaurant owners like her are "willing to do anything" to help stem the coronavirus pandemic. "Do we need to close? We'll close. Do we need to cut back our hours? We'll cut back our hours," she said.

For now, Floridita has enough resources to remain open and enough food to feed customers. But implementing measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus come at a high cost for restaurant owners.

"If we're not making enough money, how are we supposed to pay the rent? We can't afford it. We're not even making half of what we need to pay rent, electricity, our employees," Henriquez said. "I'm taking a risk here remaining open, because it's better to make some money than absolutely nothing."

Arelia Taveras, executive director of the New York State Latino Restaurant Bar and Lounge Association, which represents over 300 Latino-owned businesses, said many food business owners haven't been as lucky as Henriquez. Many have made the hard decision to close their restaurants, especially those that didn't already have delivery systems or can't compete with bigger businesses, including chain restaurants.

Winter months tend to be slow anyway, "but you add this pandemic that they didn't foresee," Taveras said. "All of these things together are causing this huge economic impact, and then how are they going to feed their family? What's going to happen with the waiters that live check by check? There's a huge fear."

Espaillat, who represents Washington Heights, wrote a letter asking New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to put a 90-day moratorium on rents for small businesses in the state during March, April and May, which Taveras' group has advocated for.

"It's really simple: You shut down for two or three months. You shouldn't be charged rent if you show that your business is down 50 percent," Espaillat said.

In the meantime, the New York State Latino Restaurant Bar and Lounge Association joined other local business owners in urging restaurant owners to send a notice saying "we cannot pay our rent at this time" as a result of the coronavirus to their landlords, who they say are in a better position "to absorb the impact of losses in rent."

Even though the mayor's office is offering zero-interest loans to certain small businesses, Espaillat said officials need to operate under the assumption that many restaurants will go out of business or will have to shut down temporarily.

"For businesses to open back three months later with a debt for a loan plus a debt of three months' worth of rent, it's kind of like overwhelming," he said.

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Taveras worries that owners who haven't been following good bookkeeping or have been operating without point-of-sale systems to help track sales, cash flow and food inventory might have a hard time getting some of the government aid.

"Some people just have a basic cashier box," she said of many immigrant- and minority-owned businesses. "How are they going to tell the comptroller that they're losing money if they can't show it in their records?"

"Officials are making decisions regarding our industry, and they're not consulting us. It's time to make us part of the conversation," she said.

Espaillat said he plans to engage with business owners in his weekly conference calls.

A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment said the "NYC Office of Nightlife is talking to business owners, workers and freelancers across the five boroughs, making sure their experiences and needs are shared with government" by filling out a questionnaire to document the impact the coronavirus has on businesses.

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