By John Donegan
This story originally appeared in the 4/16/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.
Sitting alone at the corner bar, Bharat Patel nurses a can of seltzer. The cook enters from the kitchen, arms gesturing, asking about the order of food preparations. He returns from the kitchen a couple more times, the aroma of carom, cumin, and turmeric bellies up bar side and lulls the senses. Patel’s restaurant, Tandoori Taste of India at 163 N. Main St., is preparing an impressive luncheon—a special lunch for special guests.
“Today I think a congressman is going to come and he’s going to explain with Mrs. Thomas this whole thing,” Patel said. “I don’t really know what they’re going to talk about—let’s see what they’re offering.”
The special guest was U.S. Representative Mondaire Jones, who toured Port Chester on Thursday, Apr. 8, to talk with Patel and other restaurant owners about the American Rescue Plan and how it can support their businesses.
The plan, which became law in early March, authorized $7.25 billion for the Payment Protection Program (PPP) and $28.7 billion for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund—a federal grant program dispensed by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to businesses struggling to cover regular expenses like payroll, rent, and utilities due to COVID-19.
The American Rescue Plan is also funding the NYS Bar Restaurant Recovery Fund, a grant program that offers $3 million in reimbursement grants to small businesses in communities that were placed in Red and Orange micro-cluster zones for more than a month, which includes Port Chester. Each restaurant that is approved will receive $5,000 per worker they rehire with a maximum of $50,000 per store.
Virtually any business that earns its keep through food and drink can apply, which includes food trucks, tasting rooms and bars.
“I have spoken to so many small business owners who had to furlough or just outright fire them, people who have had to reduce their hours of operation,” Jones said. “They need a government that’s going to help them, there’s only so much that they can do on their own.”
While Patel was excited to host the congressman—along with Port Chester Mayor Luis Marino and Port Chester Trustee Joan Grangenois-Thomas, who is also Jones’ district director—he did not know why he was chosen.
According to Patel, the PPP funds originally approved in March 2020 helped when he had to lay off two of his seven employees. But overall, his business has fared well in comparison to others. He said his sales dropped 25 percent when indoor dining along with gyms and salons were shuttered for three months, but he has done well through online ordering apps.
According to the SBA, the PPP loans were forgivable if the money was used to pay employees their regular wages, and if those payroll costs constituted at least 60% of the loan amount. Businesses that received the loan had to apply for forgiveness within 10 months of receiving the money, otherwise they’d have to pay it back. The process was not easy, requiring tax forms, payroll, and other proofs of proper employment.
“The first one was a mess, then they fixed it and it got better, but it’s still not easily accessible,” said State Senator Shelley Mayer, who joined the tour later that day. “Banks gave it to their favorite customers and a lot of these places don’t really have a banking relationship. I mean, they have an account, but they don’t have a relationship.”
“None of these business owners are going to know how to apply,” said Carlos Santos, owner of Aqui Es Santa Fe at 32 Broad St. “People like us, of course, we have resources because we’re younger and we speak the language and we’re educated. But a lot of the people on Main Street and Westchester Avenue, they’re fighting to barely survive.”
Patel told them he got the PPP within a couple days of applying, and in contrast to other Port Chester businesses, he found that it was not difficult to apply.
“We got the first PPP, but not any other assistance because we don’t need it,” Patel said. “Because we are still surviving…and you have to pay it back anyway.”
This legislation follows the first round of the PPP, which began loaning money to small businesses that applied through banks in August 2020. Congress passed the PPP Extension Act of 2021 with overwhelming support in March, which extends the deadline to apply to May 31. That said, not every business that qualified got accepted.
Unlike the PPP, the new federal and state grant programs will be made available to most restaurants that suffered during the pandemic, including those with undocumented workers, who pay many of the same taxes as citizens yet reap few of the same returns. Often, these workers and the businesses that hire them do not qualify for COVID-19 aid like stimulus checks and the expanded tax credit.
“It is a major victory,” Jones said. “In New York State, 500,000 people are undocumented or previously incarcerated and are ineligible for a lot of the money that goes to individuals in the American Rescue Plan. Now, of course indirectly, they benefit when governments are able to get them billions of dollars so they can continue to provide essential government services.”
Patel said that even though he qualifies for the grant, he does not intend on applying. He and other businesses on the block are set to be bulldozed by the end of the year. At that point, he might simply retire somewhere—possibly South Carolina.
Port Chester is still in Orange Zone recovery
When it comes to COVID-19, Port Chester has been one of the hardest hit localities in the state. It became an Orange Zone on Nov. 11, after Governor Andrew Cuomo flagged communities with the highest case per capita rates and placed restrictions on store hours, operations, and capacity—including places of worship.
Through the holidays, Port Chester was still in the Orange Zone and COVID cases continued to rise. Small business owners in Port Chester protested the designation in early December, arguing that while it was well meaning—to stop the spread of the virus—it was misguided, resulting in a pointless forfeiture of business. Rye Brook, meanwhile, a two-minute drive away, was permitted to allow indoor dining.
Santos remembers the protests well; he organized them.
“After two weeks of restaurants being closed, numbers didn’t decrease, they increased,” Santos said. “The data made no real sense for why they were targeting Port Chester…If we were in New York City, where people can’t be as transient, I can understand it…but here, it made no sense.”
The rest of the American Rescue Plan educational tour, while well intentioned on the part of Grangenois-Thomas and Jones, reflected a disconnect between small business owners and big government. Several of the restaurant and deli owners interviewed by the community leaders didn’t know much about the PPP loan or the grants, let alone how to apply. Two of the owners didn’t even show up. One couple who own a bodega on North Main Street knew of the programs but were concerned that anything they received would have to be paid back.
“That was clear on the tour,” Mayer said. “We want to clarify and communicate effectively how you apply, and which ones are grants, because grants are what they need in Port Chester.”
Santos applied for a PPP loan and was accepted. But when he tried to cash in on the funds, for some reason it was no longer available. “We emailed back and forth with the SBA and then they just never responded…so we don’t really know what happened there.”
He noted it was difficult to apply and that he only found out about the loan program through an independent restaurant coalition. He acknowledged that without a decent grasp of the rules within the program and knowledge of how to navigate social media, he probably would have been left in the dark.
“I would never find out through Port Chester,” Santos said. “If you log onto a board meeting, they spend more time talking about cleaning snow than they do about actual initiatives and tangible change in Port Chester.”
Mayer agreed that many Latin-owned restaurants in the town do not have an effective voice within the village and are often left out of the conversation on how to safeguard their economy, despite the village having a restaurant-dense economy.
“And how would they know; they aren’t following the New York State budget or the federal budget, they’re trying to keep their business afloat,” she said.
For some, applying for the programs was too complex and little assistance was provided by local officials. Santos cited a lack of mediation between the village board and its constituents throughout the pandemic as one of the major reasons why COVID cases rose and restrictions were put into place.
“You have those on the board who say they’re for the people, but when you actually come to them with initiatives, they don’t respond,” Santos said. “It’s very disheartening, and I say that because people like myself have given them very clear blueprints on how we can communicate things and tangibly create good outdoor seating for restaurants, and no one ever responds.”
All can agree: Communication is vital going forward
The same day Orange Zone restrictions in Port Chester were lifted, Santos said he and the owners of at least 12 other restaurants were preparing to file a lawsuit. Then he received a call from the Governor’s office asking if they were going to follow through. They retracted the suit, but Santos pointed out a common theme with the community leaders and the state government: they are reactive, not proactive.
“They like to scream and shout when it’s time to get reelected, and so they should take that same zeal and bring it to this,” Santos said. “They’re terrible at communicating, they’re terrible at actually moving forward with actual initiatives and agendas.”
This is not to say that several community leaders do not agree with many of Santos’ sentiments.
“Port Chester was really hard hit,” Grangenois-Thomas said. “We were in the Orange Zone for nearly two months, and that really knocked the life out of a lot of our restaurants as well as salons, gyms and such like that. It made sense to come and visit one of the harder hit communities.”
Jones lauded both the American Rescue Plan as a major boost to the struggling businesses and the tour as a head on approach that caught several shops by surprise, though he admitted that the details of how grants can be awarded are still being hammered out.
“We’re not really sure right now what that process is going to look like or what the qualifiers are going to be,” Jones said. “But this was about being on the ground to see how the American Rescue Plan has aided and benefitted people, but also the previous federal aid and how that’s benefited small business owners and restaurants.”
The SBA and Empire State Development Corporation haven’t outlined how to apply for the grants. Jones assured newscasters during his televised interview that as soon as the application process is released, his office “will be standing ready” to assist communities in the 17th district with both grant and PPP loan applications.
Santos thinks the grant is a step in the right direction but that it’s too little too late.
“It’s a great amount, but it’s too late for a lot of businesses,” he said. “If we’re being very frank, it’s going to be skewed because of the fact that you have so many people here that are undocumented, work on cash and are off the books. They are still expenses to the restaurant, but they’re not expenses that can be put on their tax returns. So I think it’s going to be very skewed for a lot of Latin owned businesses here. That’s opening a whole terrible can of worms which is that Port Chester is still a predominately undocumented Latino town.”