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As retail chains flourish, NY’s Orthodox small business owners protest closures

Racks of breezy spring maxi-dresses and colorful long-sleeve tops hang inside Sareka on Saddle, freshly unwrapped and never tried on. The women’s modest clothing shop has been shuttered since March, when the state mandated all non-essential businesses closed to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Now, nearly three months later, Deena Bechhofer and her parents are beginning to worry. They jointly own the shop in Airmont, adjacent to Monsey, New York, a heavily ultra-Orthodox area. If they don’t start selling the inventory it will mean a significant loss next quarter.

“It’s our busiest season. During the spring and summer you can’t get long-sleeve shirts in Target or long skirts. It’s like being a non-Jewish owned toy store shut before Christmas,” Bechhofer said of the store, which primarily serves the Orthodox Jewish women of Rockland County.

If the merchandise doesn’t move soon it will be too late, said Bechhofer’s mother, Rivka Abramowitz. The clothing will either have to be steeply discounted next year or warehoused.

“As we say in Monsey, no one wants to eat kugel on a Sunday,” she said.

And so Bechhofer joined #ReopenNY. The group of more than 160 mostly Orthodox Jewish small business owners is pleading with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow them to open immediately — albeit with strict precautions. These include shopping by appointment only, sneeze guards, Purell at the entrance and throughout the store, and a strict facemask policy.

“COVID is not a joke for us. No one is saying COVID is not dangerous. No one is saying COVID does not exist, but we have one simple goal, to get us back to work in the safest way possible,” Bechhofer said.

“If big box stores can service hundreds at a time, we citizens should be equally trusted to service smaller numbers of patrons in our business.”

There are some 465,000 small businesses statewide. According to the #ReopenNY plea, “if big box stores can service hundreds at a time, we citizens should be equally trusted to service smaller numbers of patrons in our business. Common sense dictates that it is obviously much easier to monitor smaller more controlled environments and enterprises.”

New York state is in fact reopening — just not all at once.

As part of Cuomo’s 12-step plan, a phased reopening will see some regions in New York State up and running before others. Five regions are expected to open by the end of May, but severely struck Rockland County and New York City likely won’t open until mid-June.

According to the Rockland County Coronavirus website, on May 25, almost 30 percent of residents were infected with COVID-19 and 618 had died. The county includes heavily ultra-Orthodox areas such as Monsey, Ramapo, and Airmont, where clothing store Sareka on Saddle is located.

To gain an on-the-ground sense of how businesses are faring under coronavirus crisis closures, the Times of Israel visited areas surrounding New York City with large Jewish populations and spoke with several ultra-Orthodox small business owners. A mid-June opening is too long to wait, said the small business owners interviewed for this story.

The owners said they’re not just worried about what they see as a double standard in policy towards them versus large chains. As closures draw on, more small businesses may permanently shutter, which in turn would cost millions of lost jobs.

“The governor has to find a way to do something and we all have to be ready to go when he says we can open,” said Rivkie Feiner, CEO of Universal Communication Network, Inc., a grant writing and strategic communications firm based in Monsey.

To that end, Feiner has already prepared guidelines for her all-female staff. When they return to work their desks will be more than six feet (two meters) apart, people will be asked to take their temperature daily, and hand sanitizer will be stationed around the office. But so far the office stands empty.

‘People are ready to shop,’ but stores remain closed

“We’re fed up. We need to feed our families,” said Simcha Minkowitz, who along with her husband owns Amor Fine Jewelry in Brooklyn.

Recently Minkowitz sat in her car, recorded a video and uploaded it to Twitter. In it she pleads with Cuomo to allow small, non-essential businesses to reopen since they were forced to close in March as part of New York’s “Pause” order.

Minkowitz decided to make the video, which has been viewed more than 330,000 times, after her husband shared a story about a friend of theirs whose business was failing and would likely have to close. About 47 percent of 5,800 small businesses surveyed in late March don’t expect to still be open at the end of the year, according to The New York Times.

Although Minkowitz said her shop is not in danger of closing permanently, the news left her feeling rattled — particularly because earlier that day she stopped in a 7-Eleven with her six children to get them a treat for being so well behaved all week. Walking out of the store she said it hit her: all the large chain stores such as 7-Eleven, Target and Walmart were open. That seemed hypocritical to her.

Why she wondered, couldn’t their small store open if they employed strict measures? And so she hit record.

“It was a call to action. I was devastated. My parents were entrepreneurs and I grew up seeing them go through up and down, but they always made it through. The economy is crumbling and I’m so done,” Minkowitz said.

When Amor Fine Jewelry does reopen it will need to adopt strict physical distancing requirements which will, among other things, restrict the location to a maximum 50% occupancy at all times. That includes both employees and customers.

Minkowitz said she would ensure strict adherence to these policies. Like Becks, she said customers would need to make appointments and wear facemasks.

“My store is my space. It’s like my home, and no one cares about your home like a homeowner,” Minkowitz said.

Abramowitz of Sareka on Saddle agreed.

“I don’t want to open fully, but my phone is ringing off the hook. People are ready to shop,” she said, adding that because most of their customers, largely ultra-Orthodox, don’t have access to the internet, online shopping isn’t an option.

Nevertheless Al Samuels, president of Rockland Business Association, said he urges small businesses be patient.

“Our governor has been the most conservative about concerns regarding health care first. The health of our people come first,” he said. “I want them to be healthy, to be able to get up and work every day. I want their customers to be healthy. I think we need to follow the guidelines even though they are very hard.”

Insufficient funds, bureaucratic barriers

New York now has unemployment of 13%, the highest rate since the Great Depression. In the last five weeks alone, 1.4 million New Yorkers filed for unemployment insurance, according to the New York Department of Labor.

However, the data doesn’t include part-time or self-employed workers such as Mendel Rosenfeld of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Right now Rosenfeld is hanging on by a thread. Originally from Zurich, he launched Swiss Events a year ago, so named because he prides himself on precision and meticulous planning. The new business, which was off to a promising start, would augment the salary he earned planning events for Chabad International, which represents global Chabad Hasidim from its headquarters in Crown Heights.

Then the cancellations started. And they didn’t stop.

“The events business is based on people getting together, and according to the way it looks now it’s not feasible I’ll be able to open in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Overall Rosenfeld said he’s projecting a loss of between $20,000 and $25,000 this year.

“I’m very worried about the year ahead. I really don’t know how I will survive. I’ve had no cash flow for a month or two and my bank account will be empty. I don’t know what to do,” he said.

“I really don’t know how I will survive. I’ve had no cash flow for a month or two and my bank account will be empty. I don’t know what to do”

Rosenfeld’s options are limited. His accountant is helping him navigate an application for the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but because he only employs freelance and part-time workers it’s not clear what the outcome will be.

The PPP helped Sareka on Saddle’s Abramowitz, but it only went so far.

“It paid for one month of rent, barely,” she said. “My employees make less money with that than with unemployment.”

No light at the end of the tunnel

Entrepreneur Chaim Homnick of Cedarhurst, Long Island, who runs a girls’ day camp and a tutoring center, has different worries.

Camps might yet open and he’s successfully run his tutoring service remotely. Instead, Homnick is worried about Lavish Layette, a baby and toddler clothing store he and his wife bought late last year. They invested several thousand dollars modernizing its look and updating the inventory.

“We should have done $100,000-$140,000 in three months. Instead we have done $20,000 in online sales while discounted heavily at 25% off, so we are stuck with a lot of inventory,” Homnick said.

Everyone in Homnick’s social circle knows someone who had COVID-19 and so it’s not something he or others interviewed for this story take lightly.

“Our reaction to the virus must be commensurate with the threat”

“We’re not ignorant of it. We’re not downplaying it, but the end of May is not like it was at the end of March. Our reaction to the virus must be commensurate with the threat,” he said. “We just want to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Header: Simcha Minkowitz fine-tunes a display in her store, Amore Fine Jewelry. (Mushka Krinsky)