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CityWatch: As NYC restaurants stretch out, food-cart vendors ask: ‘Where’s our COVID relief?’

After COVID hit, New York City’s restaurants moved out to the sidewalks and the curbs.

Overturning decades of legal precedent, permit rules, high-strung neighbors and the usual bureaucratic inertia, City Hall moved with surprising efficiency to rescue a vital local industry fighting to survive.

Good for the restaurants. Good for us.

So who’s saving the city’s street vendors? Anyone?

They’ve suffered through the same pandemic that the restaurant owners and employees have—and they’ve had to do it with far fewer resources and little outside help. Mostly recent immigrants seeking a foothold in the city’s street-corner economy, the food-cart operators and folding-table merchants don’t have investors to fall back on or landlords to seek mercy from or accountants to juggle the books or government programs to bail them out. They are literally out at the curb by themselves.

It’s been an excruciating 15 months for many of them, and relief is coming so slowly, many, like Walid Elfaramawy, are still asking, “When will we get back to normal? It’s taking a very long time.”

Elfaramawy comes from Egypt and is 42 years old. His towering hot-dog-pretzel-and-soda cart is hard to miss at Seventh Avenue and West 43rd Street in Manhattan’s once-buzzing Times Square, which is just now starting to come back to life. He spent six months at home with his wife, desperately itching to get back to his cart.

“It’s starting to get better,” he said. “If you compare it to the pandemic, this is much better.”

But Broadway isn’t really back until September. The nearby office buildings are one-quarter to one-third full at best. The tourists are definitely returning, but they seem less eager to spend and more distracted now. And Elfaramawy’s climb to normalcy, he said, has been dotted with too many $20 and $30 gross-receipt days.

“There was no business at first,” he said. “It was very slow. Of course, I am upset. I don’t want to stay home. It is no good. The family is important. But you can’t be in the house all the time.”

Many of his vendor friends, he said, still aren’t back yet. Mostly, it depends on location. “Some areas are still very slow. They don’t get the money, so we don’t get the money.”

Though the numbers are definitely pointing in the right direction, the Long Island City commissaries that supply many of the food carts are still keeping abbreviated hours. The SUVs that tow the carts still want $50 a trip. And everyone selling on the sidewalk needs a personal vendor’s license as well as a city permit for the cart, which, despite the pandemic, remain in short supply.

“The number of permits, that’s the biggest thing,” said Mohamed Attia, who directs the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Institute, the strongest organized voice the vendors have. A former Halal-food vendor who understands city politics, Attia spent much of last year lobbying the City Council to expand the number of citywide permits, which have been frozen at 2,900 since 1983. (There are also special permits for military veterans, fruit-and-vegetable stands and healthy-food options, as well as 1,000 summer-only permits for Mister Softee trucks and other warm-weather cuisine, pushing the grand total to 5,000 or so.)

On Jan. 28, the City Council approved 4,000 new permits, but they don’t start arriving until next summer, when they will begin trickling in at 400 a year over 10 years. 

Also read: Sweet return: A post-COVID recovery is baking on Duane Street

New regulations will also require the permit holders to be present at their carts, a move designed to quash the longstanding gray market in city vending permits, which like taxi medallions fluctuate in price and are traded according to their own bizarre rules. Immediately pre-COVID, the citywide permits were fetching $25,000 to $30,000 per two-year renewal. This past year, it’s been catch as catch can.

“The system has to improve,” Attia said. “How long can people wait? Whatever you are doing for the restaurants, do it for the vendors, too. Someone snapped their fingers, and suddenly, there are 10,000 more outdoor dining spaces. You’re telling me we cannot have 10,000 more vendors out there?”

Also read: After a troubled rollout, here’s where New York’s vaccination program stands now

An expansion like that, he said, would stifle the permit bidding wars and allow subway churro saleswomen and bottle-water purveyors and other unlicensed vendors to quit risking confiscations, fines and arrest.

“The restaurants have gotten all this free space from the city,” he said. “What about the people who’ve been out here all along?”

As these new battles unfold, Walid Elfaramawy said he was just happy to be back at his cart and seeing the crowds returning.

“Soon,” he said, “it’s gonna be better. I hope it will.”

Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.

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