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NYC's Street Vendors Are Not Receiving COVID-19 Business Aid

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CECILY MAURAN, HOST: The outbreak of the coronavirus has hit New York City’s businesses hard. And that includes street vendors. According to city council members, street vendors have lost up to 90% of business in recent weeks. But as Megan Cattel reports. unlike their brick and mortar neighbors, many of them do not qualify for government aid.

MEGAN CATTEL, BYLINE: New York City’s nickname is the ‘big apple’. But it’s also known for being the land of hot dogs and halal chicken over rice. Before the stay at home order, food vendors were a common sight. And they are considered essential workers. But with the loss in foot traffic, most of them are now closed--like NY Dosas, a food cart near Washington Square Park and NYUs. Thiru Kumar is the owner. He, says without regular customers he had to close.

THIRU KUMAR: Yeah, we locked down now so we're not operating right now, currently closed. NYU close NYU people told me also it's gonna take a long time.

CATTEL: Since shutting down last month, Kumar has tried to apply for loans and grants through the federal Small Business Administration and Department of Labor. But Kumar, and most other street vendors don’t qualify. Only small businesses--with five employees or more--can be considered. But Kumar doesn't have any employees. He runs his business on his own. He says for now, the only way he can cover his rent and buy groceries fis by taking out credit card loans. And, he’s also worried about having enough customers to sustain his business in the future.

KUMAR: I called yesterday. I called, still they said nothing, yet I called the Labor Department. Nobody answered.

CATTEL: Even if food vendors like Kumar can qualify for a small business loan, many are struggling to receive help. Ben Wilson, founder of the collective Vendors United says of the tens of thousands food vendors he’s in contact throughout the country, no one has told him their applications have been approved.

BEN WILSON: A lot of them applied a week early in our group, but the results have been nothing. And we've got some very large vendors because they run multiple cards, and they're not getting it. I have yet to hear from a vendor get their money.

CATTEL: Beyond the exclusion from small business aid, many street vendors in New York City face another hurdle: their immigration status. According to the non-profit Street Vendor Project, most of the 20,000 vendors in New York city are undocumented. That means they don’t qualify for the federal government’s universal income check of twelve hundred dollars Andrew Lim is with New American Economy, an immigration nonprofit. He says this could lead to a larger problem. And with the economy shut down it’s important for people to receive aid so that they keep the economy afloat.

ANDREW LIM: They don't have money to spend on themselves or their family. So, you know, they may not be able to pay rent, they may not be able to have enough food for their families. And this all has ripple effects throughout the economy.

CATTEL: New York state assembly members say they’re are working on solutions,. But the New York State assembly is closed. It’s been suspended since mid-March. So politicians can’t tap into any state funds. Instead, they’re looking to nonprofits that can help hard-hit communities with fundraising. As for Thiru Kumar, while he waits for aid or for his customers to come back, he’s trying to stay optimistic.

KUMAR: Usually I don't get much time to hang out with the family so now everybody home you know, more time to chat and you know, cleaning--

((Sound: People shouting in the background))

CATTEL: Yeah, I think I hear your family right now!

KUMAR: Yeah. ((laughs))

CATTEL: Megan Cattel, Columbia Radio News.


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