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Steam pipe explosion in Flatiron leaves small business owners scrambling for answers

Merchants can try to recoup lost revenue by filing for reimbursement from Con Edison.

Paul and Jay Schweitzer, a father-son team who own a typewriter emergency repair store on Fifth Avenue, sat in a corner of the Flatiron Plaza, quietly observing the chaos that a steam pipe explosion had left behind — subway entrances shut, New Yorkers scrambling to get the perfect shot of the plume of smoke emanating from a large crater in the street, and fire department officials and the NYPD trying to keep the peace.

They had planned to open their store at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, but instead were met with police tape and non-answers to questions about how long their small business would have to remain closed.

“We have our customers who are waiting for repairs and service and pickups,” Paul Schweitzer, 79, had said on Thursday. “My business is in demand, and we’re holding up many people who need my services.”

Around 6:40 a.m. Thursday, a steam pipe exploded on Fifth Avenue between 21st and 22nd streets, exposing at least 44 buildings in the area to asbestos-contaminated dust and debris, after which the city evacuated residents and businesses in the area. Decontamination sites, where New Yorkers who were exposed can turn in their clothing, as well as a reception center run by the American Red Cross have been set up to aid the roughly 500 New Yorkers displaced by the explosion.

“The area has many different types of stores and businesses,” Jay Schweitzer said via email later on Thursday. “What sometimes gets forgotten are the countless small businesses, like ours, tucked away in commercial buildings or tiny storefronts.”

For small businesses, in addition to environmental concerns about any exposure to cancer-causing asbestos, loss of revenue and uncertainty about when business can resume are added worries, Jennifer Brown, executive director of The Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership Business Improvement District, said via telephone Friday.

To relieve confusion resulting from the aftermath of the explosion, the BID, in partnership with the city Department of Small Business Services, is helping small businesses by pushing out information about resources available from the city and Con Edison over social media and email to its stakeholders, Brown said.

Members of the BID also popped into stores recently reopened on adjoining Broadway, asking after issues and allaying concerns, Brown added.

One such reopened establishment was Obicá Mozzarella Bar on 928 Broadway, which was one of a series of stores shut down due to the uncertainty about health hazards posed by the shooting jet of steam and debris Thursday.

“We already lost a lot yesterday. We had two private parties yesterday; it’s just money that we lost. It’s something that you cannot control,” manager Claudia Andreani said, adding that the restaurant did not have many reservations for Friday. “Let’s see next week what it’s going to be.”

Small-business owners can file a claims form with Con Edison to request reimbursement for lost revenue, Con Ed spokesman Sidney Alvarez said, adding that The Clinton School, located at 10 E. 15th St., is one such destination for those seeking funds. The location, which also functions as a reception center operated by the American Red Cross, will stay open until 9 p.m. Friday.

Alvarez added that Con Edison is trying to expedite the evaluation of claims requests.

“This is the kind of situation where you live in a city like New York and stuff is going to happen. Getting mad isn’t going to help anything,” Florie Huppert, who was shut out of her event-planning office on Fifth Avenue, said outside the reception center. Contemplating going to Apple and buying computers for a makeshift satellite office in her home, Huppert advised faith in officials and was confident that the city will “figure it out.”

Others, however, were less confident. Owner of a mom-and-pop Greek steakhouse restaurant Merakia, 66-year-old Renee Typaldos had come to the reception center hoping to get some answers about the tragedy that had left her and approximately 15 employees without an income.

Describing the time when she found out about the explosion as “very, very frightening,” Typaldos stressed that her foremost concern was her employees, who depend on her for their livelihood.

“What we are doing in the meantime is calming staff down, calling insurance companies, Con Edison, whatever other agencies we need,” she said, adding how the road laid out by city officials for the reopening of her restaurant will at least take a week to traverse, during which time she predicts losing upward of $100,000 in revenue.

“Without any income, how am I going to pay everybody? And if I do, how will I get reimbursed? As small business owners, we have heavy debt,” Typaldos said, adding that she is in the process of figuring out a plan with her insurance company.

“We are a family; we are very, very close. I don’t want them to hurt. I don’t want to lose anybody,” Typaldos said of her employees. “I have to figure out how everyone gets paid, how everyone is happy and we get back to business as soon as possible.”

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