Jamaican NY minibus operators facing ruin from COVID-19 onslaught

NEW YORK, USA — For one group of Jamaican nationals here the outbreak of the coronavirus may have already caused permanent economic damage.

Some 300 minivan owners, operators, and drivers have been forced to park their vehicles for close to three months now, effectively cutting off all income, according to David Clarke, an operator who spoke to the Jamaica Observer on behalf of the group.

Clarke said that “with practically no income during this period, our debts are mounting; we are struggling to pay rent, meet mortgage and credit cards payments, and provide for our families”.

The cost of insurance, described as exorbitant, is also said to be having a debilitating effect on their operations. Insurance costs range anywhere from US$2,000 to $4,000 monthly, or as much as $40,000 annually, Clarke and other sources told the newspaper.

The operators ply various routes in Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, and have been a staple in the New York City public transportation system for more than two decades.

One long-time Brooklyn operator, who asked that his name not be used for this story, said he had been forced to turn in the licence plates for his two vehicles to the Department of Motor Vehicles to avoid paying insurance.

The shutdown in business also comes at a time when many in the trade owe bank loans, having recently borrowed to finance a change from their smaller vans to larger ones with additional space and seats.

Following years of resistance, problems with the police and New York City authorities the service provided by the minivan operators finally gained recognition following the crushing 2005 strike by New York City Transit workers.

The service provided great relief and assistance to the travelling public as it was able to fill part of the void left as a result of the strike.

To add to their woes of the minivan owners, New York City buses have not been charging fares during the COVID-19 crisis. Public passengers have been taking full advantage of offer, as well as the increased space provided by the transit system to practise social distancing.

In a bid to avoid a total ruin of their business, some operators are seeking financial help from city or state agencies.

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