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New Report Outlines How COVID-19 Decimated NYC’s Street Vendor Community

The study is part of a multi-city effort to examine the impact of the pandemic on informal workers across the globe

A man is walking away with a plastic bag containing food in front a food truck. Another man stands in the foreground with a mask on his face.
A new report is looking at the outsize impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the city’s street vending community
Gary He/Eater

Ahead of a City Council vote tomorrow to significantly add to the number of street vendor permits in the city, a new report outlines the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on New York City’s street vending community, a majority of whom are immigrants, and people of color.

The report focuses on two separate periods during the course of the pandemic last year: April 2020, when cases and deaths were peaking in the city and businesses and vendors faced the most amount of restrictions; and in June 2020, when restrictions had been eased significantly.

Despite street vendors being categorized as essential workers — which allowed them to keep their businesses open during the initial shutdown — 98 percent of the 63 street vendors surveyed, many of whom are food vendors, had no earnings in the month of April.

A key cause of that dip in business was due to most office employees working from home, turning street vending centers such as Times Square and the Financial District into ghost towns. Many others were afraid of contracting the illness, and nearly half of the respondents surveyed said they had contracted the virus. A large number of street vendors live in neighborhoods like East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, which had a disproportionately large number of novel coronavirus cases and deaths.

The outlook for street vendors — advocates estimate that there are between 10,000 to 20,000 street food and merchandise vendors in the city — only improved by a tiny fraction in June, when the city had brought the spread of the virus significantly under control, and diners were frequenting NYC’s newly created outdoor dining setups. At that time, only 26 percent of respondents had gone back to work, with a majority not being able to work due to the same concerns in April. For those who did go back, the average earnings were just 20 percent of what they were in February 2020, a month before the lockdown went into effect.

Street food vendors’ problems were further compounded by the fact that a majority were shut of out of local and federal small businesses loans because many are self-employed or lack the payroll paperwork required to apply for these loans, according to the report.

Several vendors did receive stimulus checks from the government for themselves and their families, and some received unemployment assistance through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, but vendors that wasn’t enough to cover household and business costs. Twenty-six percent did not receive any assistance partly due to being undocumented, and 76 percent of respondents said they had to borrow money, burn through their savings, and sell or pawn their assets to support themselves and their families.

Making matters worse, many vendors reported that they continued to receive tickets from the New York Police Department (NYPD). In June last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the end to the contentious practice and said the NYPD would no longer be in charge of enforcement in regards to street vendors, yet vendors have still reported being ticketed afterward, according to the report. Vendors have received tickets for infractions including alleged health code violations to parking in the wrong

The new study was commissioned by the nonprofit Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) — women make up a larger percentage of street vendors, yet continue to earn less than their male counterparts, according to the report — with assistance from the Urban Justice Center’s Street Vendor Project, one of the leading advocacy groups for street vendors in NYC, and is part of a global effort to study the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the informal economy in 12 cities.

In NYC, the report has come out a day before a City Council hearing that could significantly improve working conditions for street vendors in the city. Intro 1116 — as the bill is officially called — is finally coming up for a vote tomorrow after City Council member Margaret Chin first introduced it in 2018. The legislation will create 4,000 new vending permits over a 10-year period beginning in 2022, and create a new law enforcement unit responsible for responding to street vendor violations or complaints. The bill is also seeking to eradicate the underground license market that often ends of up costing street vendors thousands of dollars in fees.

The bill already has the backing of 30 City Council members, and Mayor Bill de Blasio indicated his support for signing the bill into law saying, “this is something I’ve wanted to see for a long time.” The bill has, however, divided the restaurant industry, with many opposing the bill saying it would drive customers away from restaurants, while many others in the industry have voiced their support saying restaurants and street food vendors are all part of the same community.

Meanwhile, street vendor advocates are continuing to push for more recognition for vendors including access to small business loans, and state senator Jessica Ramos has introduced legislation that could allow more street vendors to set up shop across the state.