On March 17, Morgan Sykes got laid off from her job at a bike shop in the East Village, joining hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers who have seen their jobs disappear due to coronavirus prevention measures. As a former bike courier, she figured she could help people by delivering food or medicine now that many New Yorkers can’t leave their homes. She sent out a tweet asking anyone if anyone needed help. The tweet got almost 10,000 retweets.
As the tweet spread, Sykes got hooked up with a group called Corona Courier, a group started by the librarian Liz Baldwin after the New York Public Library announced it would close at least through the end of the month.
Three days after Sykes’s tweet, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order forcing all non-essential services to close. Auto repair shops would be essential businesses, but bike shops would not.
This didn’t scan with Sykes. “Bikes are mechanical devices,” she said. “It’s not if you’re going to catch a flat, it’s when. It’s essential for us to be delivering these supplies that our bikes are functioning.”
To illustrate the point, Sykes told me about some of her recent courier trips. She grocery shopped for two people in Ridgewood, picked up prescriptions for a person who “could hardly speak over the phone” because their voice was so shot. She got fresh vegetables and a thermometer for someone in Crown Heights who just got back from Spain and was in self-quarantine. After she hung up with me, she was off to pick up medical supplies for an immuno-compromised child and his family.
Bike shops have long been pillars of their communities, especially in places with rich cycling cultures like New York City. It is one of the few local retail businesses left where customers are routinely on a first-name basis with the staff. But the coronavirus crisis has given urgency to the question of just how “essential” bike shops really are, since the designation determines if they can stay open during a statewide lockdown.
When California issued a shelter-in-place order, it too omitted bike shops as essential businesses. But mayors and county officials in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas corrected that oversight by designating bike shops as essential within their local jurisdictions. The same happened in New York, where Mayor BIll de Blasio eventually designated bike shops as essential, just hours before the lockdown took effect.
But that doesn’t mean bike shop owners have nothing to worry about. Now, they have to strike a seemingly impossible balance between public health concerns, keeping deliveries moving and other essential workers commuting, protecting their staff, and staying financially afloat.
“It’s been extraordinarily crazy,” said Shawn Wolf, who co-owns the bike shops King Kog and Sun & Air in Williamsburg with his wife. “This time of year, we always see a rise in foot traffic in the store, but the last week has just been panic as opposed to excitement.” He added that “it’s not always the best feeling when making sales to people who are just in panic mode and trying to buy a bike because they don’t have a better option, rather than buying a bike because that’s what they want to do and they’re excited about the activity.”
The situation has also put added stress on Wolf and his staff. Wolf’s shops have been running on a “skeleton crew” because some people have chosen not to come into work due to health concerns. Some of those who have come in have worked more than a week straight and counting. The majority of his customers these days are delivery workers, but they’re also offering free or low-cost service for people recently laid off.
Wolf and his crew are hardly alone in feeling the stress of how best to balance civic responsibility, health, and their business’s survival. Charlie McCorkell has been the owner of Bicycle Habitat, which has two stores in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan, for 43 years. He and his store managers decided to close their shops this week “to hit the pause button” so they can think about how to weigh the relative risks of operating a business when the city is supposed to be shut down with the benefit of keeping bikes moving.
When I spoke to McCorkell, he sounded like he was in a moral quandary. Does he stay open to keep cyclists moving? Or does he close, because the risk to his 27 staff members—and to himself; he’s 70 years old—is too great? He floated the hypothetical of how he would feel if, in a few weeks, he found out someone on his staff got coronavirus from the store. “What’s my responsibility, our corporate responsibility, to the staff?”
McCorkell doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but he was also clear that every bike shop owner has to make his or her own call. To his mind, there’s no obvious right or wrong answer. “If I did everything just to maximize the dollar, I’d stay open and my bank account would be fine,” he said. “But I have to do what’s for the greater good.” Now, he just has to figure out what that is.
For her part, Sykes doesn’t know if she’ll be going back to work at her shop, because when I talked to her on Monday the situation was changing “day to day.” But she added her old boss had been handling the situation well, all things considered. “They are on the front lines as well with grocery store workers and postal workers. Bike mechanics are heroes right now.”