(Photos: Luana Harumi)

Greenwich Village, which is usually bustling with people in every corner, has been much quieter since New York City went on pause in late March and non-essential businesses were forced to temporarily shut down. But local stores are finally able to slowly – and carefully – open their doors again.

Monday marked the first day of Phase One of the city’s “New York Forward” plan, during which construction, manufacturing, and retail are allowed to open. But not even a sunny day, with temperatures as high as 80 degrees, was enough to convince some of the store owners in the area. Many businesses still had their doors closed, their storefronts boarded up with plywood. 

“I guess people do not feel safe and confident 100 percent yet,” said Jamal Alnasr, owner of Village Music World. “We’re going to try to open but we’re going to open the right way, the safe way, we’re going to be cautious.” The record store, whose list of customers include Patti Smith and Lana Del Rey, had been spinning practically uninterruptedly for over four decades until it had to close due to the coronavirus. Doors will officially reopen this Tuesday, but Alnasr decided to check out how things were going nearby first.

“I came today into the city but I’m still a little disappointed because [there is] not a lot of foot traffic,” he said. 

One of his concerns is whether any of his three employees will be willing to go back to work at the site. “One of them doesn’t answer the phone, the other two, they said, ‘Oh, we don’t feel good,’ or ‘We don’t feel safe,’” he said. “So I don’t know how to manage that, either. It’s just too much to deal with at once.”

For Hamlet Tallaj, owner of the clothing store Hamlet’s Vintage, the problem was that he doesn’t have any employees: that meant he couldn’t qualify to receive a stimulus check from the Paycheck Protection Program. His store is also reopening on Tuesday.  

In pre-COVID-19 times, Tallaj worked closely with costume design teams and provided clothes for various TV series. Now, he’s trying to work out how he can optimize his business online, something he realized would be very important.

“I just want to stay open. I just want to be able to save my business, try my best,” Tallaj said. “It’s going to take a little time to get this figured out.”

Although during the first phase of reopening the stores are limited to curbside or in-store pickup or drop-off, he is already rearranging things inside so customers can maintain social distance when shopping. “We are developing as it goes,” he said. “One of the main concerns is that we don’t have tourists now. We don’t have NYU. So it’s going to be a rough summer, for sure.”

Dai Stevens of Surreal Eyewear.

Other stores had a less difficult time in the runup to reopening. Surreal Eyewear, in the West Village, had several customers come in on Monday – and also adopted new rules for shoppers. Safety measures include leaving the door locked and only letting one person in at a time unless they are in a couple. Customers are free to touch the eyeglasses, the lenses and frames of which are sanitized after they leave.

“We’re just cleaning, cleaning, cleaning,” the store manager Dai Stevens said. “I don’t want to get coronavirus, so I’m going to make sure that I’m clean so no one else does.” 

The store finished cataloging its products for online sales just a week before it shut down in March. At the time, Stevens expected it would only be closed for a week or two. Now, he’s excited to come back. “My expectation is just that, hopefully, everything just gets back to normal– well, if they can,” he said. “And for me and my coworkers to have a job.”

In early May, a study by economists at the University of Illinois, Harvard Business School, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago estimated that over 100,000 small businesses across the U.S. had permanently shut down since the pandemic was declared two months before. A Facebook survey of 86,000 small-business owners, managers and workers found that 31 percent of small businesses had stopped operating, and only 45 percent of owners and managers plan to rehire the same workers. In New York City, it is estimated that 300,000 small business jobs were lost in April. 

“I just want people to support small businesses more,” Stevens said. “Because small businesses employ a lot of my friends and myself. I know where every dollar goes, and it’s typically back into the business, as opposed to bigger businesses where it’s just going to CEOs.” 

Tallaj, of Hamlet’s Vintage, also believes people should pay more attention to small businesses. “People have been under this circumstance working online, some people have been able to live like there’s nothing happening. And stores like mine, we are really hit,” he said. “We haven’t really gotten the help we were supposed to get.”  

That is a concern shared by Alnasr. “It’s not just me, I’m sure 99.9 percent of the small businesses are very worried,” said the owner of Village Music World. “Our biggest problem now is financial, this is the fourth month we are behind. I would say this is the worst of everything I’ve ever experienced before.” 

The Village Alliance has posted a map of businesses that are open in the neighborhood.