Two Years Later: Bushwick Businesses Reflect On An Ongoing Pandemic

Just under two years ago, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in New York City. In the days that followed, life in the city began to change. First, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency. Then fifteen days later, on March 16, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all restaurants in New York City to close, only allowing takeout and delivery orders. For the next three months, restaurants like Le Garage in Bushwick were allowed only to provide takeout. Shortly before Le Garage was forced to close, then, the restaurant held a “goodbye party,” where customers came together to dine one last time. Rachel Allswang, one of its two owners, gave away all of the restaurant’s food and wine with the hope that she was not parting from her community forever. 

 “Even though it was sad, there was still hope in our hearts,” Allswang remembers now.

As days and weeks of the city-wide shutdown turned into months, Allswang began to fear that she would not be able to keep up with the restaurant’s bills, rent, or insurance premiums. Allswang took advantage of the aid programs that had become household names. Le Garage received a loan through the Personal Paycheck Program to cover payroll and other expenses, as well as a grant from the Small Business Administration’s “Restaurant Revitalization Fund.” 

As days and weeks of the city-wide shutdown turned into months, the owner of a Bushwick restaurant called Le Garage began to fear that she would not be able to keep up with the restaurant’s bills, rent, or insurance premiums.

“I was one of the first to get it. That was a game-changer,” said Allswang. 

Soon, Allswang had a new challenge– she could not find enough cooks. Where once at least 15 people would fight over a single opening, applicants were now few and far between. She says she couldn’t keep up with other restaurants, where wages had gone up, at numbers she claimed to not be able to afford.

“[Other] restaurants were willing to pay a lot, so the cooks would go there and they would even have health benefits,” she said. “I wish I could do the same, but I can’t afford that. I’m a small business owner in Bushwick.”

But the coming vaccine had soon changed things yet again. By last July, as more people were vaccinated and had cases began to decline, Allswang was hopeful for her restaurant. 

“Everyone was out celebrating what we thought was the end of COVID,” Allswang says, adding, “Le Garage never did as much revenue.” 

While last summer felt like a return to what was remembered as normal, newer variants soon surfaced and Allswang began to fear that Le Garage would soon struggle again. During the latest wave of infections, Allswang discovered that she had let go of some of her fears and began to trust her staff, something she had never done before. 

“It was a struggle,” said Allswang, “Seeing them stand by me during the pandemic, showing me that they are here for Le Garage, I was able to let go of my grip.”

Allswang was now giving her employees more responsibilities and, as the two-year mark of the pandemic approached, Allswang remains concerned that there will be another city-wide shutdown that she anticipates will be mentally and emotionally draining. 

“The regulars, the other restaurants, bars, coffee shops – helping each other out with tips, ideas and updating one another with new restrictions daily,” she says.

“It was a struggle,” Le Garage’s owner said.

At Starr Bar, right off the Jefferson L station, not only was owner Mcnair Scott fearful for his own business but talked often about the safety of New York’s frontline workers, who make up 25% of the city’s workforce. 

“A real fear was total societal collapse. It’s hard to remember now after such a long slog how immediate and unmoored fear was then,” he said. 

While the bar did receive some PPP loans, they didn’t receive any “game-changing” relief funds, Scott says. The bar barely had enough money to survive the shutdown, he claims. 

When the city slowly began to crawl out of lockdown, Scott describes the staff at the Starr Bar coming back quickly, ready to work and get out of their homes. Customers had started to return, but something new was happening too.

“Pre-pandemic, our customers came from all over the city. During COVID, a beautiful local crowd made Starr Bar their home,” Scott claims.

For bars and restaurants open before the pandemic, aid has come in based on their pre-pandemic revenue. However, that is a different story for Purgatory, a club off the Wilson Avenue L train. The day the pandemic hit, Purgatory had received the liquor license they waited six months for. 

“Since we’ve never been open in a pre-pandemic world, we’ve been constantly adapting as regulations change,” said the club’s owner, Emilie Galambos.

While many restaurants and bars were able to apply for most of the loans and grants available at the time, Purgatory couldn’t receive aid because they had no revenue to show before the pandemic began, said Galambos. 

“The Restaurant Revitalization Fund was of some help. Definitely nowhere what we would have received if we had been making sales in 2019,” she added. It wasn’t until fall 2021 that Purgatory began to start promoting events. 

“We just wish there had been some more support from the government,” she said.

According to Galambos, events and customers have gone “0 to 100” in the number of events they have been able to hold and how busy it has been. Galambos said that Purgatory had been daydreaming about what it would be like when the venue was finally open and now they are experiencing it. 

“We are open again. We’re digging ourselves out of the financial hole. We’re feeling optimistic about the direction things are headed,” Galambos said.

All images taken by Rachel Allswang.

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