Gov. Kathy Hochul’s message to the Brooklyn business community, finally on the mend after arguably the most difficult year-and-a-half it’s ever seen, was a simple one: while you may get knocked down, Brooklynites always get back up again, stronger than before.
“This business community was knocked down so hard. And yet you never, ever, ever gave up,” Hochul said in a keynote speech at the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce’s annual gala in Tuesday night. “And I thank you for having that courage, the resiliency and that Brooklyn tough attitude that got us to where we are today.”
The gala, the Chamber’s first since 2019 owing to the pandemic, was held at the El Caribe Country Club in Mill Basin, and brought together Brooklyn’s political and business honchos in the swanky locale to boost the borough’s commerce, after taking a veritable pounding due to the pandemic.
The governor said that Brooklyn coming back is crucial for the entire state, because the rest of the state is “watching” how the recovery unfolds in Kings County, New York’s most populous county.
“Why Brooklyn needs to succeed coming out of this pandemic is because the rest of the state is watching you,” Hochul said. “They need to know it can be done.”
The Chamber’s president, Randy Peers, said that the past 18 months had been the busiest ever for the group, which beefed up its staff by over 50 percent, from 22 to 35 full-time employees, to meet the unprecedented demand for services and assistance from Brooklyn’s small businesses during the pandemic.
“Without hesitation, I can say that while our 103-year organization has lasted through world wars and great depressions, this was probably one of the most impactful events on our membership ever,” Peers said in remarks to attendees. “Because it affected almost every business in Brooklyn and in New York City.”
Peers laid out the dire situation for the borough’s 62,000 businesses, 84 percent of which employ 10 or fewer people, as he read off statistics: 80 percent of Brooklyn businesses lost revenue in 2020, with over half of those losing more than 50 percent of annual revenue year-over-year, a figure he called “devastating.” 85 percent of the borough’s establishments had to lay off employees.
Meanwhile, a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, and even after the disbursal of relief money from all levels of government, a third of Brooklyn’s businesses still owe back rent, and half had to take on new debt to survive the pandemic.
The Chamber has been doing what it can, including launching the “Bring Back Brooklyn Fund” which crowdfunded $750,000 for “micro-loans,” $338,000 of which has been disbursed, as well as to distribute personal protective equipment and other materials businesses now need in the pandemic era, such as outdoor heaters for restaurants. The group also launched a “social justice” oriented-fund, funded by Brooklyn Nets owners Joe and Clara Tsai, which makes loans to businesses of color based on “character” rather than on credit scores.
Despite all that, and the breadth of the city’s economic recovery, the borough’s businesses are still nowhere near the state they were in pre-pandemic.
“We’re not out of the woods, folks,” Peers said. “Businesses can’t find workers. 1/3 of businesses can’t pay the rent. And revenue is down across the board.”
The gala took place as the city re-enters uncertain times: the Omicron variant is beginning its rampage through the five boroughs, and last week, Hochul reinstated a statewide indoor mask mandate unless the venue requires proof-of-vaccination (the El Caribe did the latter, in accordance with city ordinance, and thus many attendees were unmasked). A number of counties upstate have declared they do not intend to enforce the new mask mandate.
Small businesses are also coming up on another new city vaccination mandate, when employees of all private establishments will be required to get vaccinated, or be fired, after Dec. 27. Peers told reporters before his speech that he trusts the borough’s businesses to be in compliance with the new mask ordinance, but said he doesn’t believe people should be fired for not getting the jab, and noted he expects it to be challenged in court though the Chamber itself won’t file suit.
“I disagree with people losing their jobs over vaccines,” Peers said. “That’s a bad policy, and it’s a mean-spirited policy to do such around the holiday time. There’s 89 percent vaccination rate of adults in New York City. Harassing the remaining 11 percent is not going to solve for COVID. Taking precautions, protecting yourself by wearing masks and using sanitizer will help, but people’s losing their livelihoods and their jobs for this is just wrong.”
Hochul, for her part, said that the borough’s businesses can at the very least expect a functional government where different jurisdictions, like the state and city, work together to improve outcomes rather than bicker, a clear jab at her predecessor, disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was notorious in his refusal to work productively with Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“We are partners,” the governor said. “And gone is the era when there had to be this sense of a natural tension between Albany and New York City, and the governor of New York and the mayor of New York. That era, my friends, is over.”