They had enough. A group of 300 small business owners in New York opened their doors this week in defiance of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s shutdown orders. The group – called ReOpenNY and consisting of business owners of all ethnicities – was founded by five frum Jews, four of them women.
“People look at me and say, ‘You have a jewelry store, you’re not essential,’” said Simcha Minkowitz, a co-founder of the group and owner of Amor Fine Jewelery in Boro Park. “It may be true that my business is not essential, but I’m essential to my family. I’m essential to supporting my kids.”
Last Wednesday, Simcha and like-minded New Yorkers held a press conference in lower Manhattan with the Statue of Liberty in the background at which they announced their intention to engage in civil disobedience and open their businesses after the government ignored all their petitions to open legally.
On Sunday – when many of the stores opened – the NYPD handed out summonses to two Boro Park business owners but otherwise have left the defiant group alone, Minkowitz said.
“If the police start arresting people, and giving out summonses like crazy, those will all have to be litigated and go to court,” said Sarale Giter, who owns Hair By Sarale in Crown Heights and is another co-founder of the group. “The governor is not interested in that. They don’t need that on their heads, so as much as they want these executive orders to stay in place, they don’t want the problems that will come if too many people disobey.”
Minkowitz put it pithily, “The government only has as much power as we give them.”
Asked if they were scared of being arrested, both women said no. “We’re not criminals. We didn’t wrong anyone,” Minkowitz said. “They want to arrest us to make a spectacle out of us? Go try it. Try it.”
She added, though, that the group is not looking for trouble. “It’s a really peaceful coalition. Our attorney told us that if the cops show up, we should express our gratitude, accept the ticket they give us, and keep working. We’re not here to fight, we’re not here to be disrespectful. We’re just here to make a living.”
Minkowitz said Re-Open New York was born two weeks ago when her husband came home from work and told her about a friend who had lost his business. “I was very upset,” Minkowitz said. “My parents were entrepreneurs and I know how people put their hearts and souls into their businesses.”
She said she is particularly upset that large chain stores are open while small businesses are forced to stay shut. “If they can sell clothing at Target, why can’t we sell clothing at our stores?”
She argued that small business owners can monitor the cleanliness and safety of their establishments much better than bigger stores. “I’m Lysoling down the handles all day long. No one is doing that in a massive store,” Minkowitz said.
On Friday, during a radio appearance, Mayor Bill de Blasio said small businesses “are hanging on and they know it can be a matter of months until they’ll be back in action.” Minkowitz asked, “How out of touch with the people could you be? Forget about waiting three weeks.
We cannot wait one more day. I know three people personally who are losing their parnassah. This is their life and they are losing it.”
The other three co-founders of Re-Open New York are Sara Brofman, owner of Gymies Gym in Crown Heights; Suri Katz, owner of Mezzo in Boro Park and the Five Towns, and Bruce Backman, a media specialist.