The iconic red and yellow umbrellas that shade New York City’s street food vendors have been hard to find since many vendors are still fearful of being exposed to COVID-19. But Central Park West last Saturday was lined with carts ready to serve thousands of protesters as they marched from Harlem to Washington Square Park to rally against racist police violence.
“This is my first day out in three months,” said Ayman Elgaman while he was scraping the grill at his pre-pandemic spot a few blocks away from the American Museum of Natural History.
It was also the first day back out for Sam, a food vendor who didn’t want to use his last name because he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to reopen. On Saturday, Elgaman and Sam were back to setting up a few blocks away from each other.
But the stakes of making cash that afternoon were higher. During the pandemic, street vendors have seen 80 percent of their business evaporate. Sam and his family have been struggling financially for three months.
“Everybody now... we cry. No business, no food, no anything. I'm going today because I have family. I have four kids and my wife. We need money. We need more money,” Sam said. He had a small line of resting protesters asking for ice-cold Gatorade ($3.00) and water ($2.00). “If day keeps up, I should make money."
Mohmed Attia is the Executive Director of the Street Vendors Project, an advocacy group that represents nearly 20,000 vendors in the city. He noted business had started to kick back up again in many boroughs.
“A number of vendors and food trucks work around Barclays Center area and downtown Brooklyn where a lot of marches take place, and they have seen the business as going well so far,” said Attia, who is a former street cart vendor himself.
And in the past during protests, “we’ve seen vendors donating their food and their water to the protesters for people that don’t really have money to buy it.”
New York City street vendors are no stranger to the effects of racist policing. They’ve faced harassment from police officers for years—especially unlicensed vendors like women selling churros on subway platforms.
Advocates said that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement on Sunday that the NYPD would no longer participate in street vendor enforcement was long overdue, but that the vendors needed assistance from his administration.
The majority of street cart vendors are not eligible for small business loans or grants through the city or through the federal government due to many lacking proper documentation or being too small of a business. The Street Vendors Project has been advocating for grants in order to bring relief to more vendors that have suffered financially. New York City Council Members Carlos Menchaca and Margert Chin have been partners in these efforts, co-sponsoring a bill to codify an independent office of vendor enforcement. Chin has also called for a grant program to help vendors with expenses.
But Attia noted that in early talks during COVID with Commissioner Gregg Bishop of the NYC Department of Small Business Services, the department said the demand for assistance could be met by other community organizations like The Business Center for New Americans (BCNA).
In 2018, BCNA, in partnership with the Street Vendors Project, provided 31 loans totaling nearly $52,000 for street vendors that have faced fines from the city. Yanki Tshering, the executive director of BCNA, said they would welcome city assistance program to help meet the overwhelming demand.
“Of course if they needed a loan, yes, certainly we would consider it, but right now we’ve been accruing loans for the 600 clients we already have a relationship with,” Tshering said.
A spokesperson for the city’s small business department said, “SBS can assist vendors with accessing capital beyond the Federal programs—we work with micro-lenders, CDFIs, and our philanthropic community.”
Mamdouh Elgammal lives and sets up his cart in Queens near LaGuardia Community College although he hasn’t been out to sell since March 11th. Elgammal has been surviving off stimulus checks to support his wife and two kids. He hasn’t tried securing a loan because he is fearful that he wouldn’t be able to pay it back.
Elgammal said he supports the protests, but hasn’t seen enough in his neighborhood to set up near one. He misses the good foot traffic he’s counted on from the same customers he’s been seeing for 20 years.
“I have had customers since they were students in middle school and high school that now work at the college and are still customers. I need to see those people again.”