By RJ Maldonado ’22
Immigrants have always had a substantial role in the development of New York City, especially so with the businesses they have established. However, while operations may have been running smoothly for years, the arrival of COVID-19 in New York City has devastated its small businesses. Business owners already have exorbitant rents to pay, and the pandemic has only worsened financial burdens.
This narrative of detriment rings especially true for M. Reyes’s barbershop, located in East Harlem. As a non-essential business, the barbershop was forced to close when the city mandated it on March 21. This was a devastating blow, as there was no alternative to in-person haircuts. The barbershop had no source of revenue for more than three months.
On June 22, the employees of M. Reyes’s barbershop returned to work as New York City entered phase two of reopening. However, the weeks that followed brought immense change to the shop. “At first, things were good. We were getting a lot of customers, but more recently we have received a lot less clients,” said Maria, who has been working at the barbershop for eighteen years. “In all my time here, I have never seen anything like this.”
Photo Credit: Matthew Kuster '22
Since the barbershop received its official COVID-19 certification to reopen, the employees have taken various precautions to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all clients. Signs plastered all over the front windows make it abundantly clear that one cannot enter the premises without a mask. Upon entering the shop, there are further safety measurements in place. “As you can see,” said Norma, employee of fifteen years, “No one can come in without a mask. We also have these big plastic dividers between every station, and we clean the seats after every customer.” Even though M. Reyes’s goes above and beyond the recommended safety regulations, business has not been booming as of late.
When asked about the consequences of the closure, all three on-site haircutters were in agreement. Ms. Leon, who has worked at the M. Reyes’s barbershop for eleven years, said, “It has been very difficult to get employees back. Some have gone to work at other barbershops, and some don’t want to come back. We are here because we have to be.” However, the courage and valiance of these workers are not enough to keep the business afloat. With fewer customers coming in less frequently, the barbershop is losing money, and rent is not easy to pay. The future may appear bleak, but given that M. Reyes’s barbershop is not among the more than 100,000 businesses that have shut down permanently in New York State, there is hope. While the employees commend the local government for what they have done to contain the virus, they hope that the rest of the country follows suit. “We want to keep going, but in order to do that, we need our customers,” said Ms. Leon.
Hopefully, these next few months will provide more answers than questions so that small, immigrant-run businesses like M. Reyes’s barbershop can find a way to not only stay afloat but also thrive in New York City. These employees have risked a lot to come back to work, and the dedication they have shown, especially in the last several weeks, is nothing short of admirable and heroic. Until things improve on a nationwide level, small businesses will seemingly be forced to endure the brunt of the consequences of COVID-19 with no clear remedy in sight.
Photo Credit: Matthew Kuster '22