NJ’s minority businesses struggle to rebuild from COVID-19

MONSY ALVARADO, SOCIAL JUSTICE WRITER | OCTOBER 5, 2021 

NJ Spotlight News

Jabari Mofford, owner of the Health Food and Herb Center in Newark

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The Health Food and Herb Center on Broad Street in Newark helped provide for generations of the Mofford family and has been a consistent presence in the Central Ward neighborhood for 47 years. The store, just prior to the start of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, was a place where customers could get sandwiches, soups and a wheatgrass smoothie.

But these days, the storefront is dark with no electricity and mostly empty of customers. The owner, Jabari Mofford, no longer serves lunches, and instead makes a few home deliveries during the day, before he closes the store to work the nightshift at Amazon so he can pay his bills. He is thousands of dollars behind on his electric bill and his rent.

“Every time I feel I move two steps forward, it seems I move five steps back because something else happens,’’ said Mofford, the father of two young children whose own father opened the business in the early seventies. “I still try to order small things, and products when I can but it’s not enough. With not having lights, people don’t want to come in and it looks like I’m closed all the time, so it’s very difficult for me to get back on my feet right now.”

Minority-owned businesses in Newark and across the country continue to struggle during the pandemic, in part because of inequities which have exacerbated the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic. Several studies, including one published by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice last week, show how the racial wealth gap has affected Black and brown communities.

“Small business owners of color tend to be more economically vulnerable because they don’t have access to familial capital or intergenerational wealth, so when the pandemic hit… communities of color in particular didn’t have the safety net,” said Laura Sullivan, one of the authors of the study and the director of the Economic Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

Repairing the damage

The report, which is titled “Repairing the Cracks: How New Jersey Can Restore Black & Brown Communities Ravaged by COVID-19 and Systemic Racism,” explores the impact the pandemic has had on Black and other minority communities in the Garden State and proposes policies designed to address the harm caused by the public health crisis.

“We want people to recognize that these disproportionate impacts are the results of policy, and to avoid these same disproportionate impacts in the next crisis, whether it’s a pandemic or a different type of crisis, we need to move forward with policies that intentionally promote equity,’’ Sullivan said. “We have a cracked foundation, and we need to rebuild that foundation intentionally with policies that promote inclusion and equity instead of reenforcing long-lasting disparities.”

The 24-page report addresses immediate and short-term needs of vulnerable residents in the state, including the prioritization of equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution, protecting those facing evictions and foreclosures, supporting young people returning home from youth facilities due to the pandemic, and expanding access to wealth through home ownership. The report also calls on New Jersey to establish a guaranteed income program, a New Jersey Reparations Task Force and for the state to close youth prisons and fund community-based systems of care for troubled youths.

In New Jersey, 24,656 people have died from complications of COVID-19, according to the state’s latest statistics, with an additional 2,000 probably dying of the illness. Of those who have died, 18.7%were Hispanic and 16.4% were Black.

Leading cause of death

The report states that COVID-19 was the leading cause of death for Black New Jerseyans in 2020. In Newark, where nearly half of the population is Black, more than 850 people died from COVID-19 between March 2020 through March 2021.

Many of the Blacks and Latinos who died or were infected worked as frontline workers in warehouses, as cleaners, and bus drivers and were considered essential workers, which prevented them from staying home.

Mofford, who lives in Irvington, began to work in the safety department of Amazon after he had to shut down his store in March 2020 due to statewide closures. He said he was exposed several times to COVID-19 but was never infected.

In the store on Friday, he said he still owed about $8,000 on his electric bill and was about five months behind on his $6,500 rent for the storefront. He still owed money to some of his vendors, and was forced to lay off his three employees, who were all members of minority groups.

Mofford  said he had applied for some grants and received around $10,000 in aid, but said it only helped pay about two months of rent, and not much more.

Since then, he said he has done home deliveries to bring in some income from the store.

A helpful landlord

Across the street, Walm N’Dure, who owns Walm’s World of Fitness, said he lost a few of his clients to the disease. N’Dure, a personal trainer, said he was forced to shut down his business at the start of the pandemic, and also fell behind on his rent and electric bill. He estimated that he was behind $35,000 on rent and $5,000 on his electric bill. He said his landlord has been helpful and is accepting payments whenever he can make one.

“That’s the reason why we are here surviving,’’ he said. “Because of the shutdown and COVID-19, I would have to shut down completely if I was at another location.”

He said although he’s been open since last year, he has only recovered about 40% of his business and has not been able to get his corporate accounts back.

“I literally had to start from scratch, so when we opened back up you had to offer discounts on top of not having money,’’ he said.

N’Dure said that he had very little savings and said that he has applied for city and small business grants and received one worth $10,000. He keeps applying for grants but hasn’t gotten more approved.

His landlords, Masani Barnwell-George, and her husband, Dexter George, say they too struggled with their bookstore, “A Source of Knowledge,’’ which has been in Newark for more than 30 years. The couple, as well as their business partner, Patrice McKinney, were forced to shut down for weeks in March 2020 through June 2020 and had no money coming in during that time. Weeks after they shut down, they received a default notice from their bank for not paying their mortgage.

The business owners turned to a crowdfunding site for help and were able to collect around $60,000 to help pay their expenses.

“With the help of the community we started the page and that really helped us to be able to maintain and keep us as well as some funding from city organizations,’’ Barnwell-George recalled.

The bookstore owners also added online and telephone sales to their business and instituted a drive-by pickup service to maintain their connection to their community when they couldn’t allow customers to enter the store. Barnwell-George said the business has thrived with the changes but business owners in the area are trying to survive.

“A lot of us depend on walk-in traffic, we are in a metropolitan area, in a shopping area, and if people are not at work and don’t come out during lunch or on the weekends then we don’t get that traffic,’’ she said. “That pandemic life we are still living, and we are still locked up and closed in.”

N’Dure, the gym owner, said that he wants the government to make more grants available to small business owners, and to get the word out in minority communities about the programs that are available.

“There wasn’t enough input to make sure that we all rose at the same time, and that we all bounce back from the pandemic as small businesses so we can help better our community,’’ N’Dure said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-10-05 02:05:52 -0700