By Sam Bojarski | Sam@haitiantimes.com
The coronavirus pandemic has upended lives in Haitian communities across the globe. Its emotional, economic and health toll was felt by millions. Now, one year after the March 2020 shutdowns in the U.S. and Haiti, The Haitian Times will produce a series of stories on how the community has weathered these unprecedented times.
One year after New York City shut down all non-essential businesses to limit the spread of coronavirus, business at the AutoTech Driving School, on 1776 Nostrand Ave. in Brooklyn, remains slow. Manager Judith Polidor points to financial pressures in the community, often exacerbated by having children home from school.
“People don’t want to go outside, but they lack money too,” said Polidor. “The money they receive from unemployment is not enough [and] they have to pay rent, they have to purchase goods. And then a lot of children stay home with their parents.”
AutoTech, which provides driving instruction, immigraton and tax preparation services in English, French and Creole, has received a lifeline through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). While mostly intended to cover payroll, the money from the PPP loan has also helped the business cover rent, Polidor said.
For the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed disparities within the business community. Businesses that were up to date with tax filings and incorporation documents had an easier time accessing government assistance. Those establishments that used social media and delivery apps were able to reach more customers.
Businesses that were proactive, for instance by creating a pandemic marketing plan or displaying COVID-19 signage about health precautions compliance, were better positioned to weather the storm of COVID-19 and even grow, said Saurel Quettan, president of the Georgia Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce. And it isn’t too late to adjust, one year after the initial COVID-19 lockdown.
“COVID-19 is a wake-up call to get ready and stay ready,” Quettan said.
Pandemic highlights importance of going digital
For over 35 years, Le Bon Pain Bakery on Jamaica Avenue has been one of the only Haitian eateries along that winding Queens thoroughfare open before 6 a.m. Its early hours made it popular with health care workers in Queens Village, who continued to support the bakery during the pandemic, said manager Michael Clervoix.
“We gave to them and they gave to us,” Clervoix said. “And we kept our employees going. We changed hours just slightly, closing two hours earlier.”
Le Bon Pain never applied for government loans. The bakery closed for a week last March and took the time to do a deep cleaning and display social distancing signage so customers could feel safe buying from them, said Clervoix.
Having an existing clientele helped tremendously. But Le Bon Pain also kept up its presence on Instagram. Customers were also able to order delivery through the Seamless, Postmates and Doordash delivery apps. Delivery orders increased by as much as 10% during the pandemic, Clervoix said.
Quettan advised business owners to put together a marketing plan, saying that a consistent social media presence has paid off for its chamber members.
“Those that were active on social media became more active because they had the time,” Quettan said. “That has definitely helped them not only stay afloat, but some of them have grown as a result.”
But marketing can involve spending money that business owners do not necessarily have. Autotech has a website and advertises on Google. A 3 p.m. Sunday show on local Haitian radio station Radio Soleil that Polidor co-hosts has also raised awareness for the business, she said.
“Marketing costs a lot of money,” Polidor said. “For now, we just work with Google.”
Last year the Haitian Business Coalition, an informal group of entrepreneurs started by restauranteurs Jensen Desrosiers and Zanmi Restaurant co-owner Wesley Jean-Simon, was helping business owners create email and social media accounts.
The coalition now refers businesses that need marketing help to the Haitian American Business Network (HABNET), Desrosiers said.
Businesses who join HABNET for $250 per year have access to the network’s three-person staff, said HABNET President Jackson Rockingster. Those who cannot pay this money up front can spread the cost over their first six months of membership, he said. Services are free for members and include networking, as well as help applying for government assistance.
“We do have the technology, the know-how, to help people create a marketing plan,” Rockingster said.
Accessing assistance a hurdle for some
In cities like New York, a winter of sit-down dining restrictions hurt restaurants, in particular. Zanmi started bringing employees back in late February, as the city lifted restrictions, Jean-Simon said.
Zanmi was denied PPP funding, citing a lack of tax history for his restaurant, which opened in February 2020, Jean-Simon said. He has since hired a new accountant to file paperwork and said he hopes to receive assistance soon.
Among other Haitian community establishments that have received loans are Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project and Haitian-American Community Coalition, nonprofits based in Flatbush and East Flatbush, respectively.
Autotech Driving School received a loan of more than $11,800 in May 2020, under the name Haitian Technical Development Group LLC. The business reportedly employed five people at the time, according to a ProPublica database.
The process was relatively painless, Polidor said, because the business had tax documents readily available. “As soon as business is going up, then we will try our best to pay them [back],” she said.
A year into the pandemic, the Haitian Business Coalition is still available to help business owners file taxes and position themselves to receive assistance.
So far this year, most HABNET members who need assistance have applied for Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), a federal government loan program designed to cover operating expenses for businesses impacted by COVID-19. While assisting business owners, HABNET has learned of another challenge.
“A lot of people unfortunately were not approved because of their credit score,” Rockingster said.
He estimated that three in 10 applicants among HABNET’s membership were denied based on their credit. In response, Rockingster said the organization has planned workshops on banking and credit, for members.
Now is the time for businesses to adopt other practices, like creating a separate bank account for business finances, filing payroll taxes for any employees and staying up-to-date on quarterly tax filings, ideally with the help of an accountant, Quettan said. Family-run businesses do not always keep formal payroll if they employ close relatives.
“You can position yourself now, because guess what?” Quettan said. “This is one crisis. There will be another, there always have been crises.”
Spring 2020 borrowers have two years to repay their PPP loans. With vaccines and the prospect of a return to normalcy, Polidor said she hopes business improves well before then.
She is optimistic, because she sees a constant need for drivers’ training and immigration services.
“We know the services we provide are needed by the community,” Polidor said. “We are confident that the pandemic will have an end and our business will go up again.”