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On One Block in Brooklyn, the City’s Economic Turmoil Is on Full Display


The roots of one store on the block extend to Mexico, from where a 13-year-old boy left for the United States decades ago and found his footing in the food industry.

A drugstore is owned by a pharmacist lured to the neighborhood from the Midwest by an acquaintance. Another shop is run by a man from the Dominican Republic who began working there nearly 30 years ago

Now these storefronts in the 4400 block of Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a collection of restaurants, bodegas and mom-and-pop shops largely run by immigrants, are in many ways emblematic of the toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on New York’s small businesses.

Nearly 90 percent of the city’s restaurants and bars paid none or only part of their May rent, according to a survey by the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a business group. Nearly two-thirds of ground-floor commercial tenants, from bodegas to nail salons to boutiques, did not pay rent in May and June, according to the Community Housing Improvement Program, which represents thousands of property owners.

As the city reopens, many mom-and-pop shops will not return, while others are struggling to survive.

Credit…Ismail Ferdous for The New York Times

When the pandemic erupted in New York in March, the Soriano family made the difficult decision to shut down its butcher and grocery store for all of April. A relative, as well as friends, had died of the virus, and the family worried about its spread.

A month’s worth of income vanished. The store, which reopened in May, has not recovered. The employees’ schedules have been cut back. The staff of five butchers has been reduced to three. And the store now closes at 7 p.m. — not at 9, as it had before — because the former rush of customers has disappeared.

“A lot of the community is out a job,” said Dennis Soriano, 27, who owns El Rancho with his parents and brothers.

His father, Felix, left Mexico for the United States at 13 by himself, eventually moving to New York and working his way up in the food industry, from dishwasher to head chef of a restaurant in Chelsea.


Credit…Ismail Ferdous for The New York Times

The family opened the butcher shop about five years ago cater-corner from a Key Food supermarket. But El Rancho specializes in cuts of beef and pork not found at most grocers, like tripe, al pastor, cecina (salted beef) and longaniza, a sausage similar to chorizo.

Even after El Rancho reopened, many customers could not afford the groceries or use food stamps. The store’s food stamp permit expired during the pandemic, and it could not file for a renewal until recently because of the shutdown, Dennis Soriano said.

Since May, the store has yet to make a profit, he said. In recent weeks, the store’s expenses soared when pork and beef prices skyrocketed. A weekly order of meat and groceries to stock the store, which typically cost $1,500, jumped to as much as $4,000. Prices have since started to return to normal, he said.

The family did not want anyone to leave hungry, so El Rancho has extended informal lines of credit to customers, totaling about $8,000 a month Mr. Soriano said. The store has given away boxes of produce and meat to about 450 families.

“It’s a special block,” he said. “It’s a special community. And it’s built by immigrants.”


Credit…Ismail Ferdous for The New York Times

The conveyor of clothes at Bay Ridge French Cleaners is a time capsule from March 14, its last full day of business.

Pressed button-down shirts hang in plastic bags. Hemmed jeans wait for their owners. About the only items being cleaned nowadays are police uniforms.

The pandemic has turned the economy upside down. Dry cleaners were allowed to remain open as “essential” businesses, but at the same time, they were less essential than ever.

For more than three months, working professionals have traded their collared shirts, dresses and suits for comfortable work-from-home attire. If a customer does show up, it’s usually to say hello.

“The situation is really, really, really bad,” said Alex, 52, the owner, who started working at the front counter in 1992, a few years after he immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic. He asked that his last name not be published.

When Alex turns on the conveyor and watches clothes swing by, he is reminded of the lost income. Customers do not pay until they pick up.

On a recent afternoon, he pulled a plastic bag off the rack and placed it on the counter: Three tailored pants for a man named Victor. He died from the coronavirus, Alex said.


Credit…Ismail Ferdous for The New York Times

Bay Ridge French Cleaners was started by an immigrant from Cuba in 1980, and Alex bought the cleaners and the entire building in 2004.

The business has never made Alex particularly wealthy — he is the only full-time employee — but he made enough over the years to buy a three-story home for his family about 150 feet from the store.

The shop had been in decline for years, he said, as office workers who had lived in the neighborhood retired or moved. The new residents, he said, cannot afford to have items dry cleaned as often and, in a sign of modern work culture, they increasingly wear clothes that can be washed at home.

Alex said he has spent the past months thinking a lot about the future of Bay Ridge French Cleaners. If he did not own the property, he said, he would have had to close it long ago because of rising rents. A vacant storefront down the street is for lease for about $8,000 a month.

“I have no choice right now,” Alex said about keeping the store open. “But if I had the chance, I would close.”


Credit…Ismail Ferdous for The New York Times

In 1984, Gopesh Patel bought a one-way ticket from Chicago to La Guardia Airport and hopped in a car for Sunset Park. It was his first time in New York City. At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, Dr. Patel met a friend of a friend who had bought a drugstore there.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

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      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

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      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

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      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

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      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.