Photos: Isseu Diouf Campbell
If you listen to many Harlemites, you will think that the Coronavirus has not made it to New York City yet. They are going about their lives as usual and don’t feel concerned at all. But some small businesses are saying they haven’t seen their Harlemite customers lately.
“This is a man-made virus,” said D, a Harlem resident on his way to getting a haircut. “In a minute you will see that they found a vaccine, and everybody will have to take a shot like the flu. This is all about money.”
Karen, who lives and works in Harlem, is not worried about the Coronavirus either.
“Whatever is meant to happen will happen,” she said. “You just have to be careful. Besides, have you seen a single Black person get this virus?”
About a block away, Robyn comes out of the supermarket mumbling; someone had just coughed next to her without properly covering his mouth. “I might need to get me a mask,” she said. “I’m not really fearful because I don’t think the Coronavirus is that serious. What I think is serious is some people’s daily hygiene. Taking precautions like washing your hands or covering your mouth when you cough!”
“They are telling us nothing that we were not already doing”, Robyn added. “Black people can’t afford to get sick. Being oppressed economically and institutionally, we have to do extra to keep up. We can’t afford a day off from life, let alone work.”
Ojojo, another Harlem resident, is in his store working behind the counter.
“Coronavirus belongs to those who made it,” said Ojojo. “I’m not worried about the virus. I wash my hands and stay away from people who are sick.”
“People are nonchalant about the Coronavirus because they are in denial and they don’t value their own life,” said Sabrina on her way home from the fruit vendor. “Harlem has the highest rate of children with respiratory illnesses. I wonder how this virus will affect them. Health workers should be around informing people.”
Carlos, a UPS driver, is of one of the few customers of a beauty salon in Harlem
“People are giving us more work because they are shopping online, they don’t want to go outside,” said Carlos. “The media needs to relax on the way they are covering the virus. What I see in the media looks scarier than what I see every day. I just found out that the library just closed for a month. I have been living in Harlem for 15 years and I love my people. I’m not going to start hiding from them because of the Coronavirus.”
Idrissa lives in Harlem but will go wherever his delivery job takes him.
“I’m doing less delivery now,” he said. “About 40-to-45 percent less. Most of the offices downtown are empty because people are working from home. It affects me financially and health-wise, because I deliver to different people every day. I make sure to wash my hands and change gloves after each delivery.”
Dubem, an interior designer, is worried about the future.
“People like us who are independent contractors, we don’t know now what is going to happen,” he said. “This is something that I have been preparing myself for a month. One of my clients’ office is closed until April 13, 2020. I hope that people forced to stay home will sit around and see the mess in their house and call me.”
Ocean restaurant, a Chinese restaurant located on Malcolm X Blvd in Harlem and open for about six years, has not yet felt the impact of the Coronavirus.
“Business is OK,” said John, one of the restaurant workers. “It’s a little slow these days, but it is not as bad as Chinatown.”
Mamadou, the manager of a local restaurant, did not notice any change in the foot-traffic either.
“It’s true it is slow, but I don’t think it has nothing to do with the Coronavirus,” said Mamadou. “We’ve had a few catering orders cancelled because many events have been cancelled in the city, but other than that nothing has really changed.”
Johnny, the manager of ISPA’s Nail Lounge, is sitting in one of the chairs that a customer would generally fill.
“The number of customers this week has decreased,” Johnny said. “It’s a different reaction now. Customers come in, and if the place is empty, they just walk out. They usually come back every two weeks, but they haven’t. Usually with a nice day like this, the place is filled up.”
On the same block, Fusion Nails is having a different experience.
“We monitor weekly, but haven’t seen any changes so far,” said the manager Ken. “It might change this weekend, we don’t know.”
The National Black Theatre’s artistic director, Jonathan McCrory, is relaxing at a terrace in Harlem enjoying his surprise day off.
“My schedule was supposed to be jam-packed today, but when I woke up this morning, I had nothing to do because of the Coronavirus,” said Jonathan. “We are following the trend and postponed one event that was supposed to start Monday. All the planned programming is being rapidly taken away. The ticket revenue is gone. Even if a lot of people are closing until April 13, we are trying to complete the financial commitment that we have with artists.”
At the Red Star, a Chinese restaurant on 7th Ave, not much is going on, to the point where they had to let two employees go. Only family members are now working in the restaurant. Nan is behind the counter with a cook in the back.
“Less people are coming,” she said. “It started a month ago and gradually less and less are coming. It’s not only us. Every restaurant around here is getting less because I don’t think people want to eat out right now. We understand why people are not coming. It is safer to stay home.”
Tia, the owner of the Weave lounge is perplexed.
“It is ghost town,” she said. “Seventy-to-eighty percent of our clients have cancelled today. Usually on weekends like this, we are overbooked. It started a week-and-a-half ago. The big-box stores selling paper towels, hand-sanitizer, toilet paper or cleaning products, are the only ones doing business right now. My employees’ checks are half this week. Thank God we have a few customers who came today. They say they came because they have a strong immune system.”
Across the street, Assana, the owner of Soraya’s House of Beauty, is attending to the only customer she had the entire day.
“We are empty,” said Assana. “It’s been two weeks. At this time, we should have had many clients, especially with the tax refunds. People are not coming, and we don’t know how we will pay the rent. The month is four weeks. If you stay two weeks without seeing a single client, how will you pay the rent?”
At the Corner Social, customers are on the terrace and inside the restaurant, but to Alice, the manager, it is not business as usual.
“Things started slowing down Wednesday,” said Alice. “Today, on Friday, it is not as busy as it used to be.”
When asked why she is wearing gloves, she answered: “I started wearing gloves two days ago because I come in contact with a lot people. Just trying to be safe.”
Regina Smith, the executive director of the Harlem Business Alliance, a nonprofit organization providing support services to entrepreneurs, hasn’t had any small business reach out for help, but has noticed a slowdown.
“People are not eating out as much as they used to, “she said. “The patronage levels are not what they used to be before, and Whole Foods is running out of food.”
Candy is the manager of the Jamaican restaurant Caribbean Star, and for her business, nothing has changed.
“People take precautions, but what can you do?” said Candy. “We take extra caution by spraying tables often and asking customers not to touch the glass, but we have not seen any decrease in business.”
On March 14, 2020, New York City confirmed its first Coronavirus death, an 82-year-old woman with advanced emphysema. Out of eight million New Yorkers, 463 people have so far contracted the Coronavirus with seven confirmed fatalities.
The City is advising those with chronic lung disease, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or a weakened immune system to avoid unnecessary events and gatherings. If you have family or friends who have one of these conditions, do not visit them if you feel sick.
Those with a history of smoking and vaping are more likely to experience serious illness related to COVID-19. For help quitting, call 866-NY-QUITS.
Starting on March 16, 2020 at 8pm, restaurants and bars statewide will only do delivery while takeout while gyms, casinos and movie theaters are closed.
Businesses with fewer than 100 employees, seeing a decrease in sales up to 25% or more, will be eligible for zero-interest loans up to $75,000 to help mitigate losses in profit. Small businesses with fewer than five employees can apply for a grant to cover 40% of payroll costs for two months, to help retain employees.
Businesses interested in the relief program can fill out the form on the NYC Small Department website at: