'I Feel Betrayed': DC Small Business Owners Brace For a Troubling Future

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Posted: Jun 03, 2020 9:00 AM
'I Feel Betrayed': DC Small Business Owners Brace For a Troubling Future

Source: Townhall Media/Ellie Bufkin

Washington, D.C. – A week that should have been celebrated as a major move toward economic recovery in D.C. has instead been marked as one of the most troubling periods of domestic unrest in the city's history. Small businesses throughout the district were given the green light to enter Phase One of Mayor Muriel Bowser's reopening plan starting on Friday, but instead of setting up patio tables and booking clients for the weekend, businesses were boarding up their windows. 

The shocking death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day spurred protests across the nation, many of them morphing into attacks on police, vandalism, and looting. As the seat of the nation's government and home of the president, Washington, D.C. became an epicenter for violence and destruction. 

Neighborhoods across the city went under lockdown after violence rocked the streets and thousands of protesters marched throughout the city. Storefronts were smashed in and looted in typically serene quadrants of the city like Georgetown, Adams Morgan, and Mount Vernon Square were swarmed by looters who seemed to smash into business and destroy at random.

The H Street district, adjacent to Capitol Hill and one of the city's most rapidly developing neighborhoods, became a target this weekend. Storefronts of many businesses, including several black-owned small businesses, were smashed. As a historic site of civil unrest and violence dating back several decades, the H Street advocates found the destruction to be disheartening. 

As a newer neighborhood that has transformed over the past several years from a crime-ridden slum to a vibrant destination for young professionals, the months of economic shutdown had already put H Street small businesses in an unstable position. The return of crime and loss of the hard fought sense of security this week hasn't helped. 

Family owned DC Harvest, an H Street restaurant that serves seasonal dishes with local ingredients as well as local beers and craft cocktails, has been hard hit by the shutdown. After Mayor Bowser issued the stay-at-home order in March, DC Harvest completely closed. They would not record a single sale for five weeks.

Jared Ringel, who owns the restaurant with his brother Arthur, the chef, said that when they finally decided to offer food and drinks for pick-up and delivery, they were happy for the business, but it was far from enough to keep going. DC Harvest is offering full meal packages and drinks, but even with the innovative offerings, Ringel noted the restaurant was still in "potential peril" if they did not get more emergency relief from federal and local government. 

"We need to move into phase two as soon as possible," Ringel told Townhall. "The restaurant industry in particular is damaged," he said of the lasting effects of the month long shutdown. After opening for pick-up and delivery, DC Harvest has been able to stay open from 11 am until 9 pm, an advantageous window that is well suited to the work-from-home D.C. professionals that make up much of the neighborhood. District wide curfews this week as early as 6 pm have not helped buoy struggling restaurants. 

"Curfews hurt," Ringel said. 

Kenfe Ballay owns Sidamo Coffee and Tea on H Street, where he has been in operation for nearly 15 years. In that time, the neighborhood has gone through significant changes, but Ballay said nothing has been as bad as the shutdown. 

Sidamo has remained open as much as possible through the shutdown, but without the ability to serve customers inside and a lack of sidewalk traffic they have depended on, business has been a shadow of what is normal this time of year. 

"If we are open, we close early because it's so very hard to pay for additional people, payroll and so on," Ballay told Townhall. As far as the billions of dollars in stimulus money earmarked for small businesses that has been distributed throughout the country, Ballay said they're still waiting. 

"We didn't get anything," Ballay said of the payments he keeps hearing about. "We are struggling." Sidamo, known for its Ethiopian coffees that are roasted on site is accustomed to swells of crowds early in the morning as the D.C. workforce starts their day. The pandemic has dramatically changed that, with the fear of the Wuhan virus is keeping people away, Ballay said.

"Sometimes I see six people the whole morning," Ballay said. "Nobody wants to come out from home right now." However, Ballay noted that just in the last two days, following the announcement from Mayor Bowser that COVID-19 cases in D.C. were dramatically declining, business has picked up. 

The last two days it looks to be improving," Ballay said. But even with an uptick in business, the damage has been done and he will need emergency funding to survive. As businesses on all sides of his were looted over the weekend, Ballay's business was spared from damage. A nearby CVS and a Starbucks with an entirely deaf staff, the only of its kind in the United States, were significantly damaged by looters. 

Though Sidamo's business hours remain unaffected by the early curfews, lasting damage caused by violence in an emerging neighborhood holds some concern for Ballay. But the major and immediate concern is the certain financial failure of small businesses like his if they do not receive more support from Congress and the District. 

"I feel betrayed," Ballay said of the lack of help he's gotten from local and federal government. "Every penny" that his business makes is spent on bills which continue to mount, even without a dramatic economic reopening. 

Despite the troubling times for H Street, however, Both Ringel and Ballay believe in the vitality of Washington, D.C. and don’t think the pandemic or the riots will stop young people from moving in. But they agree that the immediate future of small businesses is on shaky ground. 

"I think businesses will go back to normal in a short time," Ballay said. "But the small guys like me and others, we need help."

This article is part of a series of reports from the road as Townhall travels around the Acela Corridor this week to assess the health of American cities amid the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic and protests following the death of George Floyd.