Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash.

As the COVID-19 virus spread throughout New York City and restaurants were forced to rely solely on takeout and deliveries, Alfredo Angueira knew his restaurant, Beatstro, couldn’t rely on those two streams of income alone. The 44-year-old co-owner decided his restaurant would use the food it had and give it to first responders rather than let it go to waste.

But thanks to a $20,000 small business grant he received from a coalition of business groups in the Bronx, Beatstro was able to pay staff, keep their doors open and their rent at bay for slightly longer than anticipated before making the decision to shut down the restaurant in mid-November.

Beatstro is one of over 100 small businesses and non-profits in the Bronx that have received financial assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. The support came from a coalition of organizations like the Bronx Community Foundation and Bronx Business Improvement Districts (BID) in response to the lack of relief funding issued to businesses in the Bronx on a state and federal level.

Cash grants totaling $1.4 million were given to small businesses with an emphasis on those owned by women and people of color. Other services that were provided included helping businesses invest in building outdoor dining structures, providing technical assistance to businesses applying to the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Funding and more.

Disparities in PPP loans were especially stark in New York City. The share of eligible employer businesses that received a PPP loan in the Bronx was 40%, the lowest of any borough, according to a report by New York City Comptroller and mayoral candidate Scott Stringer.

In an effort to ensure greater access to PPP loans, the Biden administration announced a series of changes that can assist small businesses that missed out during the last application window. For two weeks starting Wednesday, Feb. 24, loan applications will only be processed for businesses with fewer than 20 employees. Changes in eligibility rules, such as being in default or delinquency on a federal student loan will not disqualify applicants, will also take effect.

While small businesses in the Bronx and beyond are being given a higher priority now, this wasn’t the case for many over the last year.

Early on in the pandemic, Michael Brady, executive director at the Third Avenue BID, said the coalition of business organizations got together to create the Bronx Community Relief Effort. Because of the income disparity in the borough, Brady said the group mobilized to raise capital by working with public and private partners.

The combined efforts of the Bronx Community Foundation, Bronx BIDS, the New Bronx Chamber of Commerce, the Bronx Business Organization Coalition and others helped deliver four rounds of grants to businesses in the Bronx. The average size of each grant was $14,000 to $15,000, according to Brady. The grants were meant to provide relief for rent, employees and other fixed expenses. The size of each grant was based on each application and the pending capital available.

“The real impetus of our group was to fill that gap and provide the support that Bronx businesses need,” said Brady.

The financial support has certainly helped Ragab Elsayed, owner of Ramee Fashion in Melrose, but the 63-year-old is still a financial hole. Elsayed said that he’s never been behind on rent or invoices in his 24 years of running his business, but the pandemic has changed that. His business was forced to close completely for four months, resulting in him earning no income while his rent piled up.

Elsayed said he looked into applying for a loan through his bank, but the 3.75% interest rate was too high for him. He said his landlord, who has asked to be paid, referred him to the application for financial support being offered by the coalition in the Bronx. Elsayed said he received a check for $7,500 from them, which he immediately put towards paying off his rent. He said he still owes around $50,000.

Even though business isn’t as good as it once was, Elsayed remains hopeful. As more vaccines are administered, he believes “life is going to go back to normal.”

Although the Biden administration has ramped up vaccine production and supplied states with a greater supply, factors such as how quickly people can get vaccinated and COVID-19 variants could determine how soon New York and the rest of the country return to a semblance of normalcy. And businesses will continue to suffer as a result.

Desmon Lewis, co-founder of The Bronx Community Foundation, knows the need for financial support will continue to be great. Lewis said the organizations are actively fundraising to do a fifth round of grant deployments for small businesses specifically. In addition to small businesses, the relief effort is also targeting food insecurity, housing stability, education and other areas.

The hope is that the next round of grants for small businesses will be given out in the next two to three months. However, Lewis said it’s too soon to assess how many small businesses will receive support.

“We don’t plan primarily on a specific number of businesses we want to support,” said Lewis. “We receive requests and do with a very thorough review of what the need is going to be for that business and the community.”

Small businesses will very likely continue to need support for the rest of the year and potentially into 2022. While fundraising is a critical part of relief efforts, Lewis knows outreach is just as important. He said talking about the work his non-profit is doing is one of his main priorities this year so businesses can know support is available, donors can know who is helping on the ground and other organizations get involved.

“What we’re trying to achieve is to invest and collaborate with organizations that are doing the work already to build community power in order for Bronxites to own our own destiny and forge ahead with what community believes is best for us,” said Lewis.

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