As iconic NYC small businesses die off, the politicians just shrug

Mayor de Blasio and I go to the same barber, but we’ll soon have to stop: After 74 years, Astor Place Hairstylists is closing. When a New York institution like CBGB or Ratner’s closes, there’s real loss and sadness. Change is a constant fact of life in this city, and it’s good to make peace with it. But this time feels different.

Astor Hair is not a store that sells typewriters or top hats. Its demise is not foreordained, despite COVID. With the proper city leadership, this barbershop — and businesses like it — can endure. Instead, our leaders’ scaremongering and aggressive restrictions have crippled the economy; Astor’s closure is the result.

When you first enter Astor Hair, you walk down a flight of stairs; it’s like getting your haircut in the subway. The large room is filled with cubicles decorated with personalized flair that give the shop a county-fair atmosphere.

Each barber’s pictures and tchotchkes make it their space, and you feel like you’re a part of their team. The diversity here is unique: The shop’s barbers speak Spanish, Italian, French, German, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Greek, Farsi, Portuguese and “even a little English.” You feel the comforting chaos of a cosmopolis.

Hizzoner’s barber, Alberto Amore, displays swag from his favorite Italian football team, Juventus, as well as pictures of celebrity clients and his life mottos. He’s always playing the Eagles and the Beatles and sometimes lets an aria slip in. Depending on who approaches, Alberto will answer in Italian, Spanish or English and even more expressive gestures.

Oh, and not to bury the lede: A haircut is only $23.

Will we survive the loss of this institution? Yes — but we don’t have to. Instead of always taking the cautious approach to the virus, de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo should simply level with constituents about risks. Remember when President George W. Bush told us to go about our business after 9/11? When he threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium in the World Series that year? The city recovered in no small part from this tone at the top.

It’s true that COVID is different — the threat of death here is more real and present than facing the minuscule odds of dying in a terror attack. But the odds of catastrophe today are still tiny. For the overwhelming majority of healthy Americans, this disease is not a death sentence. By taking precautions, we can decrease the risk.

Societies are not governed by scientists. When doing their jobs, scientists pursue factual truths — they explain the natural world to make it more predictable. They can say, for instance, smoking makes a person more likely to develop lung cancer. It’s not the job of the scientist, however, to recommend cigarettes be made illegal.

Politicians have sadly deputized public-health officials to decide what are essentially policy questions. And this week, Cuomo tightened restrictions further, even as Dr. Anthony Fauci advised, “You can get a lot done without necessarily locking down,” if you adhere to safety principles.

To be sure, for certain groups, like the elderly, this virus poses a greater danger. But we don’t set public policy for single groups, especially when there are practical ways to mitigate their risks.

Wise politicians make trade-offs with the entire community in mind. Paul Vezza, one of Astor’s owners, says the shop hasn’t had a single case of COVID; they check temperatures, wear masks, use partitions and collect information to contact-trace if necessary.

The mayor and governor should explain the risks. But they should also ask New Yorkers to weigh the risks sensibly. They should encourage parents, for example, to send children to school, which is not a major vector of spread and is essential to restoring normalcy.

De Blasio and Cuomo need to acknowledge the costs of their overly cautious approach — the economic damage, nursing home deaths and deaths from delayed treatment — as well as our need for connection and fun: No politician wants New Yorkers to die, but living is not simply the absence of dying.

Astor’s red, white and blue barber pole may come down temporarily, but don’t lose hope: Vezza vows that if the situation improves next year, the shop will be back. Other businesses may not be so lucky. Which is why our leaders should do their jobs and prevent them from closing in the first place.

Max Raskin is an adjunct professor of law at New York University.
Twitter: @maxraskin

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