City Council approves part of COVID-19 relief package

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson during a City Council Zoom meeting on Wednesday.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson during a City Council Zoom meeting on Wednesday.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson during a City Council Zoom meeting on Wednesday.

City Council approves part of COVID-19 relief package

New protections for commercial and residential tenants passed, in addition to capping fees by food delivery apps.
May 13, 2020

The New York City Council passed less than half of the bills in its COVID-19 legislative relief package on Wednesday, leaving out some of the more controversial bills to be dealt with later.

It was the council’s second remote meeting after first going digital on April 22. The council has also held about a dozen committee hearings over Zoom in the weeks since. Unlike the nearly silent state Senate and Assembly, legislation has been moving in the council, but maybe not as quickly as some bill sponsors would like. Just before the previous meeting, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced a package of 11 bills meant to address issues arising from the coronavirus pandemic. The council passed just four of those bills on Wednesday. Another bill in the package would have required the city to open at least 75 miles of streets to pedestrians and cyclists while the social distancing order is in effect. That bill seems to now be moot after the mayor agreed last month to open up to 100 miles of streets without the need for legislation.

Johnson’s office said the speaker was proud of the legislation that did pass today, and that the other six bills in the package are still going through the legislative process. “The Council will continue working to protect and support essential workers and help New Yorkers weather the public health crisis and the economic hardship caused by this awful virus,” City Council spokeswoman Breeana Mulligan said in a statement to City & State. Here’s what the council passed, and what’s still on the table.

What bills passed?

Several of the proposed bills in the coronavirus relief package were meant to help small-business owners who are struggling because of the pandemic. One of the bills that passed will waive or refund the fees that restaurants pay to run sidewalk cafés if they’re not able to operate this year, and another successful bill will temporarily free people who run certain businesses like restaurants and gyms from personal liability if they break their contracts because of losses due to the disease. And if a landlord harasses a commercial tenant because they’ve been impacted by the disease, the landlord could be fined $10,000-$50,000, based on another bill that passed Wednesday. The council passed a similar bill meant to protect residential tenants, fining landlords $2,000 to $10,000 if they harass a tenant for either having COVID-19 or being an essential worker.

The council passed three other bills Wednesday that weren’t part of the relief package. Two of them go after food delivery apps like GrubHub, prohibiting the apps from charging restaurants for phone orders that don’t result in a sale and temporarily capping the delivery fees charged to restaurants. The third bill requires New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to publish a list of licenses, permits and other bureaucratic ephemera that need to be renewed by city businesses despite the current state of emergency.

What’s left?

The council is moving more slowly on the other bills in the relief package, including a provision that would bar evictions and debt collection in the city until April 2021. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already put a statewide moratorium on evictions through Aug. 20, and the city’s unilateral attempt to extend that order may face some legal issues. At an April hearing on the bill, the New York City Sheriff's Office said it has to follow court orders rather than the city government. The bill, with Johnson as the lead sponsor, still hasn’t been voted out of the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing.

Another bill in the package would require the city Department of Homeless Services to offer a private room to all homeless single adults, as opposed to the congregate settings being offered now. The major concern here: price. The city is already providing private rooms in a limited capacity, but the de Blasio administration said fully implementing the bill would cost nearly $500 million over six months – a hard bill to pay during a budget crisis. This bill is sponsored by General Welfare Committee Chairman Stephen Levin, and remains in that committee.

Finally, the relief package included a four-part Essential Workers Bill of Rights – a city version of a federal proposal from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ro Khanna. Warren even joined a digital press conference last week to support the council’s legislation, but as of now, the bills that could give certain workers hazard pay and protect them from getting fired under certain circumstances still haven’t moved out of committee. The budget is an issue here too, with City Hall looking for Washington’s support to pay for some of the provisions. But another issue is the bill that would reclassify many independent contractors as employees to give them benefits like sick days. The issue has long been a controversial one, with many contractors themselves – like food delivery workers or ride-hail drivers concerned that the consequences could outweigh the benefits. As Lyft spokesman Campbell Matthews told City & State last month, “there are many aspects of this proposal to be worked out.”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.