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While NYC Businesses Are Starting To Rebound, Many Are Still On Shaky Ground

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

When New York City was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, three neighborhoods in Queens - Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona - were hit particularly hard. Now, one sign of recovery in these neighborhoods is a brighter outlook for their small businesses. But the thing is, the delta variant is now casting a shadow over that. Camille Petersen has this report from Jackson Heights, Queens.

CAMILLE PETERSEN, BYLINE: At his Tibetan restaurant, Lhasa, Sang Jien Ben sets up for a birthday party. He and his family hang rainbow balloons.

SANG JIEN BEN: (Speaking Tibetan).

PETERSEN: This festive scene is a contrast to the past year. One of Ben's employees, Tenzin Miglay, translates for us over the phone.

BEN: (Speaking Tibetan).

TENZIN MIGLAY: In the winter, it was pretty scary.

PETERSEN: Ben's restaurant was closed for months at the start of the pandemic, and when it reopened, business was very slow. Ben had to use personal savings to stay open. Then in March 2021, a fire destroyed the restaurant. He raised money through a GoFundMe to open a new Jackson Heights location about a month ago.

BEN: (Speaking Tibetan).

MIGLAY: It's been extremely hectic. There's, like, so many orders coming in at all times.

PETERSEN: Ben is optimistic that customers will keep coming now that more residents are vaccinated and going out, even with the new vaccine mandate in New York City for indoor dining. A few blocks away, masked shoppers buy fruits, juices and tamales from street vendors. More than 75% of Jackson Heights residents are fully vaccinated - among the highest rates in the city. Leslie Ramos is the executive director of a business improvement district in Jackson Heights. She says many business owners here know someone who got sick or died from COVID-19.

LESLIE RAMOS: Just in this little triangle here, we lost three people.

PETERSEN: Ramos gives me a neighborhood tour. She starts with a row of salons.

RAMOS: This is, like, my little beauty area.

PETERSEN: Alejandro Labrador opened his salon in June.

ALEJANDRO LABRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

PETERSEN: He says he's surprised by how busy he is, but he worries about another surge in COVID cases. Down the block, Glen Mirchandani says he was anxious for months that his jewelry store would close for good.

GLEN MIRCHANDANI: There was no end in sight with so many people dying. I thought, is this going to go on forever?

PETERSEN: Mirchandani gets most of his business from foot traffic, and he says it's gone up in the past few months. But he's watched traffic slow down with the rise of the delta variant.

MIRCHANDANI: This one is really getting scary again.

PETERSEN: He tells customers to get vaccinated.

MIRCHANDANI: Go get your shot. That's only best way we can kill this thing out, you know? Otherwise it's going to be - what do you call - like a circus.

PETERSEN: Leslie Ramos from the business improvement district says many business owners here are also worried about the end of New York's commercial eviction moratorium. And some have not paid rent for over a year.

RAMOS: Unless the lease gets renegotiated, unless they have a windfall, we don't know how they are going to keep up. At least one of our businesses, we know that they are $36,000 behind on their rent.

PETERSEN: Ramos says the neighborhood's immigrant business owners struggle to apply for aid and grants because of language and technology barriers. She's hosted workshops to help them.

RAMOS: But when people are working 13, even 16 hours a day, that is not something that is possible.

PETERSEN: Ramos says small business owners here create jobs for their families and their neighbors. Their recovery is the neighborhood's recovery.

For NPR News, I'm Camille Petersen in Jackson Heights, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF GHOSTFACE KILLAH AND BADBADNOTGOOD'S "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.