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Small businesses reeling from pandemic now coping with power outage

Sal Ferro, president and CEO of the Commack-based

Sal Ferro, president and CEO of the Commack-based remodeling company Alure Home Improvements, said he has been fielding twice as many inquiries as normal about repairing tree and wind damage. Credit: Heather Walsh

This story was reported by Sarina Trangle, Mark Harrington, Victor Ocasio, Daysi Calavia-Robertson, Laura Albanese and Maura McDermott. It was written by Ken Schacter.

Long Island businesses, already reeling from the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic, on Wednesday were buffeted by the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaias.

Outages of power, telephone and internet service stalled commerce while downed power lines, trees and branches impeded the paths of owners and customers. 

In Massapequa, telephone service was severed at A Cut Above Hair Studio, and stylists scrambled to use their personal cellphones to explain the situation to clients who had booked appointments.

“Our credit card machine is down, too, so we’re letting clients know we’re only taking checks or cash,” co-owner Nicole Leppla said.

“We have an ATM machine in the salon so clients can usually just grab cash there if they need to, but now that’s down also.”

“I’ve been trying so hard to get service restored but Verizon is so backed up that it took me hours just to get someone on the phone,” she said. “And when I finally did I was told it could take up to four days to get it back. I can’t go four days without a business phone!” 

Leppla said she was given a Thursday morning service appointment.

“Honestly, I’m just happy we’re still able to work,” she said.

Crestwood Country Day Camp, based in Melville, spent months devising a plan to bring 500 of its typical 1,000 children for the summer program, only to be forced to close now that power is out, co-owner Mark Transport said.

“It’s kind of like when you’re facing a boxer and you get the first punch in the face, you’re a little staggered but still standing,” Transport said of the COVID-19 setback. “PSEG is like the knockout punch. We want to know when we can get off the mat. But they won’t call us back.”

Transport said he’s facing the loss of up to $20,000 of food in camp refrigerators and freezers. The office has no electricity, so communication is limited to cellphones.

“It’s a disaster,” he said.

In Smithtown, real estate broker Peter Grosso said power outages brought “chaos” to his residential brokerage Tuesday afternoon. A continued internet outage Wednesday has meant “triple chaos” for him and his 50 brokers, he said. 

Grosso, owner of RE/MAX Integrity Leaders in Smithtown, said rolling power outages began Tuesday around 4 p.m., before coming back on at night, and shutting down again for two hours Wednesday morning.

While the lights are now on, internet service — including business phone lines — has yet to come back, and cell service in the area is spotty at best, Grosso said.

“I literally had to drive up the road to answer a phone call," he said.

The broker said the outages come at a particularly bad time. 

“If I don’t get this resolved, people could lose a house,” he said. “It’s maddening because my pace is usually 1,000 miles an hour. Now it’s 1 mile an hour.”

Meanwhile, in Huntington Village, Rhonda Gooden had planned to spend Wednesday promoting the reopening of her store, Chez Lãa Reine, but the women’s boutique lost internet and phone service.

Gooden had planned to send an e-blast announcing the store’s reopening on her 53rd birthday Friday — and mark the occasion with wine, cheese and sales throughout the weekend. Instead, a few friends came by Wednesday to snap photos and videos and use social media to promote the boutique, which specializes in Parisian and European attire that can be worn in corporate settings as well as for evenings out.

“I would be doing an email blast to my customers … I was going to raffle off some things, and basically promote the opening,” Gooden said. The lack of internet connection didn’t stop her though. “I’m not one to give up, so I had my friends come over, and they did a couple of videophone things,” said Gooden, a Huntington Station resident who achieved her longtime dream of opening a boutique in February 2019.

LocaLI Bred, an online retailer of gift baskets and subscription packages packed with Long Island-made goods, was trying to regroup Wednesday after Tuesday's blow, said co-founder Theresa Pinelli of Centerport.

“I live seven minutes away from the office, and it took me 25 minutes to get here,” said Pinelli, after arriving at her Huntington village office. “The lights are going on and off, so I’m hoping to be able to finish a day of work.”

Pinelli and co-founder Halie Geller were both trapped at home Tuesday because of fallen trees. Their internet was down and phone service was so bad they could not text one another.

“It was very disruptive, especially for an e-commerce business, where you depend on being online and mobile,” Pinelli said. “Even the loss of one day can be impactful for a small business.”

Both Pinelli and Geller have been struggling to balance parenting, assisting with online education and running their business, but their subscription service has grown about 150% since the pandemic hit.

“I think it’s because people need something to look forward to, and they’re also looking to support local businesses as much as they can,” Pinelli said.

For some, the storm's destruction means more business.

Alure Home Improvements has been fielding twice as many inquiries as normal about repairing tree and wind damage, said Sal Ferro, president, CEO and owner of the Commack-based remodeling company.

“I hate doing work at somebody else’s misfortune. I feel terrible with what people go through."

Ferro said his team had to pause work on at least five or six jobs because of fallen trees, electricity outages or other hurdles.

Employees are also struggling to conduct virtual meetings and consultation, as well as to navigate the Island due to debris and downed streetlights.

“Our industry, and all business, doesn’t need another challenge right now,” Ferro said. “We’ve suffered enough under the COVID-19 shutdown.”

Amid the struggles, some business owners extended help to struggling neighbors.

Dave Patel, owner of Setauket Gifts in East Setauket, said he placed four power strips outside his store Wednesday and posted a sign welcoming visitors to use his Wi-Fi service.

Patel said he did the same thing after Hurricane Irene struck in 2011. He said several people charged their devices and used the Wi-Fi service in the morning.

“It’s a community thing,” he said. The network name and password, he said are “posted outside, just plug in and get going … Bring your own garden chair, make it easy.”

At Napolini Express in Uniondale, the outage was measured in hours instead of days but still cost the pizzeria thousands of dollars in discarded food, said owner Ralph Romanelli.

The power interruption lasted from 2 p.m. Tuesday to noon Wednesday.

“It’s kind of like deja vu — the same feeling like when we closed for 13 days” due to COVID-19, Romanelli said. “You have food loss. You have regular business loss."

They still had no phone or internet as of midafternoon Wednesday, and credit card machines were also down.

The same could be said for many restaurants on Hempstead Turnpike, near Hofstra University. There, the Jersey Mike’s remained dark and shuttered, while the restaurant next door, Ben’s Crab, posted a sign outside saying they would remain closed due to the outage.

Cable company Altice and Verizon have also seen system outages caused by fallen lines and in some cases lack of power.

Verizon spokesman David Weissmann said parts of the company’s cellular network that relies on commercial power to operate has been affected.

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