If we can make it here, we can make it anywhere. Inspired by that classic New York mentality, my immigrant parents from Italy and Greece, along with my uncle and aunt, poured their savings into opening Don Pepi Pizza in Penn Station in 1985.
With great pizza-making skills, sweat and tears, they managed to own and operate their first thriving business. Following this success, they expanded their presence in the station with Don Pepi Deli and Kabooz’s Bar & Grille.
Over the decades, they fed many of the 1.6 million people who shuffled in and out of Gotham daily. Commuters, concert-goers and sports fans alike have found in our restaurants a tasty haven from the chaos of the station. They sat at our tables while enjoying a New York staple: a hot slice with an ice-cold soda. We’re one of the last family-owned establishments in Penn Station. We’re one of the last bastions of that “old-school” New York City charm.
Our restaurants survived the 1980s crack epidemic, 9/11 and the Great Recession. But unless policymakers act faster, we won’t survive the coronavirus lockdowns.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a tragedy for the patients and families directly affected. Our family has faced those hardships. My sister works directly on the health-care front lines. I’ve personally dealt with the crisis and its aftermath as a New York City educator navigating the shifting educational landscape in a Title I public school.
But now that the curves have been flattened, and the virus seems to be moderately contained, why are the city and state still disregarding the economic welfare of not only small businesses like ours, but all Big Apple residents and commuters trying to make ends meet?
Why won’t Gov. Andrew Cuomo speed up his phases to take into account the dramatic decline in cases and hospitalizations, as well as the experience of other states like Georgia and Florida, which have reopened safely and responsibly?
This lingering uncertainty casts a dark shadow over this city’s otherwise bright future.
We attempted to keep our businesses open in March to serve essential workers. But when commuting came to a crashing halt and the homeless overtook Penn Station, we were forced to close our doors for the first time in 35 years. We were left with no choice but to lay off more than 65 employees, some of whom have yet to receive unemployment benefits.
How long can any privately owned company in the restaurant and hospitality industries survive this lockdown with rumors swirling that a full reopening may not come until next year? Do policymakers have any clue what it’s like to run a business in this city?
With astronomical rent and overhead costs, operating at limited capacity isn’t profitable; it’s a crippling short-term solution. Landlords still must demand rent, and the city and state will collect taxes. With no plan in sight for restaurants, how can we possibly come up with the money to pay off these creditors? Every day that passes is one day closer for a small business owner to close his or her doors for good.
After significant time spent being on “pause” and simply “just waiting,” how is it that there are no preparations and a clearly outlined plan of action for the future? With our gates shuttered for two months, businesses like ours could have spent this time safely adjusting for reopening.
Actions need to be taken to guarantee the livelihood of this city and its residents post-COVID-19. “New York tough” means powering through hardships with true grit and grace. While this pandemic hasn’t been easy for New York especially, we can all get through the tough times ahead if the odds are not stacked against us and businesses like ours aren’t left completely in the dark.
By stalling the reopening long past when the curves were flattened, our leaders risk setting off a fatal domino effect. Without commuters and offices opened, the city faces an inevitable mass exodus of residents who will flee to greener pastures. Small businesses will crumble, and so will the real-estate, infrastructure, education and retail markets. Our family’s New York dream and those of millions of other families will be crushed. Forever.
Alexa Michos is a public-school teacher in New York.