Last week, the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) sent the Queens Chamber of Commerce 500,000 face masks to give out to Queens businesses. Altogether, SBS has given out more than four million masks to organizations and stores across the city.
“New York City means business,” SBS Commissioner Jonnel Doris said in a statement. “Our small businesses are tough, resilient and they are coming back.”
In addition to giving out 500,000 masks, the chamber distributed 20,000 face shields courtesy of NewYork-Presbyterian. They also gave out flyers in numerous languages that contain resources and guidance on safety measures and reopening.
The Queens Chamber’s headquarters at the Bulova Corporate Center in East Elmhurst served as the main distribution hub.
“Small businesses are the backbone of Queens and they have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19, here in the epicenter of the epicenter of the pandemic,” said Tom Grech, president and CEO of the chamber. “It is essential that we help them navigate this reopening safely so we can get Queens back to business.”
Starting last Tuesday, representatives from local business improvement districts, business associations and other groups arrived to pick up boxes of face masks and shields.
Among them was Jennifer Furioli, executive director of the Jamaica Center BID. She said she sees her organization’s job as expediting and making things easier for local businesses.
Stores are already trying to communicate with employees, communicate with customers and figure out all their new systems and logistics, she said, so face masks are just “one less thing they have to immediately worry about.”
“Our businesses have been really diligent about following the rules and wanting to do the right thing,” she said. “But it’s been like drinking from a firehose for them.”
Furioli said businesses in the area are enthusiastic and positive. Even at the worst point of the crisis, she said she wasn’t getting a lot of distressed calls.
“They’re just trying to do their best, trying to work with the situation that they have,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of excitement now that these businesses are ready to open their doors and begin engaging with customers again.”
Dian Yu, executive director of the Downtown Flushing BID, said giving out face masks during phase two is especially important because retail stores and beauty salons, places with a “more personal touch,” are reopening.
Seeing the spike in COVID-19 cases in other states across the country, Yu said businesses want to do everything to avoid another widespread outbreak.
“People need to not forget we are still in the first wave,” he said. “The first wave is not over yet. We’ve got to be careful.”
In Flushing, Yu said while businesses are slowly reopening, they are still struggling. One big problem is that customers are not fully back. He foresees the restaurant industry in particular will struggle until around November.
“When people are fully back to patronize all the businesses, that’s the crucial thing,” Yu said.
Furioli noted that when the COVID-19 pandemic started, all of the economic development organizations and professionals throughout the city “clicked together.” They formed a Facebook group for coronavirus response and recovery to share information and answer questions.
On a hyperlocal level, the Queens Chamber coordinated all of the borough’s economic development organizations. That was important, Furioli said, because Queens was the hardest hit and has a high immigrant population.
They initially met virtually twice a week to share materials, develop a deeper relationship and work in collaboration.
For example, many businesses complained that customers were not adhering to the six-foot distancing rule, especially when speaking to staff. The Jamaica Center BID’s graphic designer made a poster, uploaded it and shared it with other groups to use.
“There have been no egos involved,” Furioli said. “We have all worked together.”
Yu said because COVID-19 is the “invisible enemy” and it’s everywhere, everyone is collectively fighting it.
“Everybody has to do their share and continue to fight this disease in every way we can,” he said.
Ikhwan Rim, president of the Union Street Small Business Association in Flushing, said knowing that the local chamber of commerce is helping groups like his offers some comfort.
“Especially our association, most are mom-and-pop stores,” Rim said. “It will help a lot to protect themselves and our customers too.”
Furioli urged people to make an effort to shop locally as much as possible.
“These businesses need it more than ever,” she said. “It was important before to have a ‘buy local’ mindset. Now, it’s critical.”