Bodegas across the five boroughs have been a lifeline for New Yorkers throughout the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns. But the economic and health effects of the crisis have taken a heavy toll on small food retailers — suffering compounded by the collapse of law and order in many of the neighborhoods we serve.
Which makes it all the more enraging that we now have to deal with a plastic-bag ban — an unfunded mandate that epitomizes the state Legislature’s sheer decadence and beholdenness to the boutique causes of gentry progressives at a time when the working class and small business are facing unprecedented misery.
Bodegeuros continue to courageously fulfill their roles as essential workers, manning the front lines in the city’s poorest neighborhoods and providing vital resources for the poorest Gothamites. But many of us are hanging by a thread, and some have been forced to shut their doors for good due to a lack of foot traffic.
As incomes drop and sales decline, bodegas need help so they can survive this downturn and assist in the city’s economic recovery. There is one easy step Albany could take to make things at least a little eaiser on us: scrapping or, at least, pausing the ban on plastic bags, which legislators imposed last year without considering what it would mean for bodegas and other small retailers that often operate on razor-thin margins.
When the ban was enacted, there was much discussion about its environmental benefits to the oceans. These are minor at best, as studies have found that the United States contributes less than 1 percent of the plastic litter in the world’s oceans.
But never mind that: Albany all but ignored the pressure on retailers charged with implementing the ban and allocated few resources to assist them in that effort. Now, two months since the ban went into effect, those impacts are starting to become clear. And as we predicted, the news is not good.
The state failed to think through whether there would be enough paper bags available to replace plastic, and whether the cost of this alternative would be too much for small businesses to bear — if they could manage to find paper at all.
The sad reality is that regulatory enforcement always falls the hardest on the most vulnerable and least politically protected segments of an industry. As bodegas and other small, independent businesses are struggling with the constraints of this ill-conceived ban, environmental advocates are blindly advocating for full enforcement without recognizing the hardship that creates.
One such advocate, who led the charge for the ban, has created her own “snitch squad” — based far from New York City in Bennington, Vt. — whose members are encouraged to inform on ban violators to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
State lawmakers also failed to consider the ban’s health impact on our store owners and employees. Reusable cloth bags-bags must be regularly washed to ensure that they aren’t spreading germs, but research has shown that a majority of shoppers don’t actually follow that protocol.
In the absence of adequate supply and the prohibitive cost, many of our stores continue to use plastic bags while a legal challenge to the ban moves through the courts. We don’t condone or encourage violating the law, but this is what happens when the impact of a bad law on the most vulnerable stores isn’t fully considered.
That is why we support the effort by Assemblyman Victor Pichardo and his colleagues in the Assembly to place a two-year moratorium on the ban and institute in its place a five-cent fee on plastic.
This would generate an estimated $500 million a year, providing the state with much-needed revenue at a time when it faces multibillion-dollar deficits as a result of the pandemic. But more important, it will give bodegas and other small businesses some breathing room and allow them to offer shoppers what they really want: options, including the ability to choose a product that offers peace of mind when it comes to protecting their health as the pandemic drags on.
It is well past time for Albany to support independent retailers and remove impediments to their success, instead of loading them down with unrealistic and unfunded mandates that only make an already difficult situation worse.
Francisco Marte is the secretary-treasurer of the Bodega and Small Business Association.