FLORIDA, (Washington Insider Magazine) – Cafe Vert, a kosher restaurant on the typically bustling Harding Avenue, was quiet during what normally would have been a lunch rush time Wednesday.
Michael Labi, who manages the restaurant owned by his family, noted how slow business had become in recent weeks since Champlain Towers South collapsed a mile away.
“I’m not going to complain about business when people have lost their lives and parents and family members, but it has been very slow,” he said, adding he knew many regular customers who lived in New York and Canada and owned homes in the area were not returning to Surfside during this time. “Even during COVID we had business, but not like this.”
Business owners along Harding Avenue have said that the collapse of the condo building nearby has taken an emotional toll on them, as many have lost friends and regular customers. Some also noted that it has created an economic ripple effect, as well.
While many rushed to provide support and aid to first responders, victims and other members of their community, they also noticed that the building collapse has brought a burdensome slowdown in business. It is akin to the economic fallout during the pandemic as customers find it difficult to travel to the area.
“The situation is very bad for us,” said Samuel Aroveno, who owns and operates Rolling-Pin Kosher Pareve Bakery. “In the last year, we saw maybe 15 businesses on the street here close. I hope we don’t see that again now.”
After the building collapse, authorities had to lock down a large perimeter to ensure that people didn’t get too close to the site. They also needed plenty of room to store emergency vehicles and construction equipment for the digging work that continues there.
“You have to maintain that perimeter for safety, but we realize it’s a double-edged sword,” said Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, a Miami-Dade Police Department public information officer. “You’re hurting people that are not directly involved with this. We get that and hope to minimize the pain.”
The closures have further slowed traffic in the area located on a narrow strip of land connected to Florida’s coast by a series of bridges and small islands, making it a challenge for customers, residents and business owners to easily reach Surfside’s downtown.
“It’s been impossible,” said Emily Wands, owner of LAHH Salon on Harding Avenue. “Customers are canceling, turning around saying, ‘I’m not coming.’”
The slowdown comes after one of the most economically devastating periods for small businesses in the nation’s history. The coronavirus pandemic brought many locally owned shops and restaurants to their knees or forced entrepreneurs to take on long-term loans to keep afloat.
Still, many businesses worked together in the aftermath to provide meals to first responders and aid for those affected by the building’s collapse.
“It’s a very small community,” Wands, who helped organize food and clothing drives, said. “Everybody knows somebody that was in that tower. Maybe not directly, but your best friend knows this person or your husband’s family knows that person. It’s been very emotional. We lost someone who has been a client of mine for five years. It’s devastating.”
Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said he has been grateful for the efforts of the businesses downtown, especially as they provided help to the community while also taking a hit economically.
“On top of being shut down completely, they went out of their way to provide support for the rescue efforts,” he said. “So not only did they not have business, but they were expending funds, time and energy to support the effort. There are a lot of courageous, wonderful people in our business district.”
Another economic catastrophe
Relief for the business district, however, is not coming quickly. The summer months are an off-season for the Miami Beach area, so economic activity was already at a low point for the shops here. But the building collapse and street shutdowns have made the small bustling business district turn even quieter.
In response, the Small Business Administration and the Florida Department of Economic Activity have been on the ground to help. SBA advisers have set up a table inside Geneva Tailor, a storefront on Harding Avenue central to the town’s business district. Co-owner Ilker Cirkin said the business has taken an SBA loan to help it through the current economic turmoil.
“We try, you know, we try our best, but it’s just been very difficult, so we are waiting to hear about it,” he said, pointing at the two SBA employees working at a table by his front window.