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1 in 6 LI small businesses didn't survive the pandemic

Shuttered storefronts illuminated in the sun along Main

Some closed their doors.

Some survived, though just barely.

And some see better times just around the COVID-19 corner.

The road to a so-far elusive recovery has been a difficult one for Long Island’s downtown business owners — a preternaturally optimistic group accustomed to high overhead costs, onerous regulations and the daily challenges of managing staff and satisfying customers. In the year since the pandemic started, they’ve endured layoffs, furloughs and steep income losses.

Many no longer exist.

10,000 out of 60,000 Amount of small downtown businesses on Long Island that have closed in the past year, according to an estimate by the chief economist of the Long Island Association.

That translates to 100,000 lost jobs.

About 10,000 of Nassau and Suffolk counties’ 60,000 small downtown businesses have closed in the past year, according to an estimate prepared by John Rizzo, chief economist of the Long Island Association, Nassau-Suffolk’s most prominent business group. At an average of 10 workers per business, that translates to 100,000 lost jobs, Rizzo told Newsday.

Even with about 5,000 new businesses replacing them, the net loss of 5,000 shops and restaurants far surpasses the approximately 3,300 net loss of such businesses during the 2009 recession, Rizzo said.

Farmingdale Chamber of Commerce president Joe Garcia said the situation for businesses in the village is "not great or perfect," but is better than it was a year ago.

"I think there’s going to be more of a celebratory feeling when you go out to eat or go to a store," he said. "The feeling right now is that changes will end up being good changes, but we certainly know that our members have a year of revenue to make up, so they’re going to have to find ways to do that."

A survey last month by "smart growth" advocacy group Vision Long Island found that 174 businesses had closed in 33 of Long Island’s downtowns — up from 128 in a similar survey last fall, said executive director Eric Alexander. The same survey found at least 106 new businesses opened to replace those that shut their doors, he said.

174 The amount of businesses that had closed in 33 of Long Island’s downtowns, up from 128 in the fall, according to latest Vision Long Island survey.

The survey also found 106 new businesses opened to replace those that shut their doors.

Both Rizzo and Alexander forecast that the economy will eventually bounce back as vaccinations, summer weather and federal stimulus money kick in to prop up struggling businesses and create new ones.

"I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish. There are a lot of people really struggling," Alexander said. "But I do believe Main Streets are faring slightly better. ... I think there’s some signs of life and hope."

The health of downtowns is critically important for the local economy: 90% of Long Island businesses are small companies with fewer than 20 employees, Long Island Association officials said.

Among those that have survived, some merchants are reluctant to speak openly about their struggles, fearing that it might further drive away potential customers.

But some, such as Neil Goldberg, owner of Main Street Board Game Café in Huntington, said they feel as if they’ve been living in a terrifying adventure flick.

"The movie is about to end, some ‘Game of Thrones’ final scene where you’re standing there against the onrushing crowd by yourself and somehow you survived," Goldberg said. "That’s the only way I can describe it."

Nostro Posto Pizzeria & Ristorante, Plainview

Open ‘We’re just barely getting by’

Warmer weather and the state’s loosening of restrictions on indoor dining are bringing in more customers, but restaurant owner Gaetano DeCrescenzo said it might not be enough to stay open.

His Nostro Posto Pizzeria & Ristorante survived a year of the pandemic and, while some regulars have started coming back, the loosening of social-distancing restrictions hasn't led to a big spike in customers.

"We’re just barely getting by," DeCrescenzo said. "We’re open 75%, but people are not here. ... The dining room, still, it’s nothing."

Large orders from office buildings, hospitals and summer day camps so far haven’t returned.

"We hope they open everything up because if they open up, we used to send a lot of pizzas out there," he said of the summer camps. "But nobody got in touch with us yet. … Offices especially on Fridays, they used to have big orders, but I don’t think anybody’s back yet."

In the fall, DeCrescenzo said, business was down 60%. Now he said it’s down about 55%, a very slight improvement. He’s had to cut staff, and if business doesn’t turn around, he said he’ll consider selling the business.

"I’m bleeding," DeCrescenzo said.

— TED PHILLIPS

Main Street Board Game Café, Huntington

Open ‘I feel very hopeful’

In early 2020, Main Street Board Game Café — which allows customers to come and play games, eat and purchase board games — was just about a year old and had not yet established itself.

Goldberg said that while customers were very supportive during the shutdown, he feared his business would not make it.

He laid off 13 employees, he said, adding it was an ongoing process of reinventing his business day by day with no end in sight.

As early as late last summer, he was able to bring back everyone who wanted to return to work. He said he has nine employees now, with plans to bring more this summer.

Goldberg said that while he was never fully shut down, mostly due to home delivery of board games and the receipt of two Paycheck Protection Program loans, he’s making about 75% of what he was earning pre-pandemic.

He said one change in his business model that proved economically successful was putting the business’ after-school program online.

"It became more popular than it was in person because we wound up with people from all over the country participating," Goldberg said. "It was over Zoom, so one kid told his friend in Baltimore and they joined and it went from there."

He said he is hopeful about the future.

"I can feel it especially in the last two weeks as the weather has gotten a little better," Goldberg said. "I do feel encouraged."

— DEBORAH S. MORRIS

Kitty O’Hara’s, Baldwin

Open ‘We’re in a business where we can’t just live month to month’

A year after laying off employees and almost closing, Kitty O’Hara’s bar in Baldwin can breathe, co-owner Dave Baker said.

The laid-off workers have returned, an outdoor patio has been added and dividers have been installed to protect customers and staff, Baker and co-owner Shay Leavy said.

Some of those changes might be permanent — anything to bring back customers and persuade them to keep coming, they said.

"We’ve got tables set up so people can be separated from each other, and I think that’s going to remain for quite a while," Leavy said.

Thinking about what he has learned from the pandemic, Baker said small businesses should make preparations for the future.

"We’re in a business where we can’t just live month to month," he said. "We have to have something in case of an emergency."

Baldwin Chamber of Commerce president Erik Mahler said many business owners think things are starting to turn around because "people are feeling [that] enough is enough and they want to have a normal life."

Many shops are "still nowhere close to what it was, but it has been increasing slightly month over month," Mahler said.

— KELDY ORTIZ

Flo’s Luncheonette, Patchogue*

*The seasonal Blue Point location is still open

Closed ‘Obviously, things went sideways’

It might seem that Flo’s Luncheonette has been cursed since it opened in Patchogue seven years ago.

First, the longtime Blue Point summer snack shack opened a year-round satellite at the former Swezey’s building on West Main Street. But it had to relocate a year later when the site was bought by the Blue Point Brewing Co.

Flo’s found a new 2,800-square-foot space in downtown Patchogue in 2017 and was doing pretty well there.

Then the pandemic hit. Flo’s temporarily closed the Patchogue site, shifted about 30 staff to Blue Point and hoped for the best.

The best never arrived: The Patchogue restaurant never reopened, and co-owner Connor Vigliotta decided last fall to sell the lease.

"Going in there, the plan was to be there many, many years," Vigliotta said. "Obviously, things went sideways with COVID."

The Blue Point business, which has operated on a parcel near Corey Beach for nearly a century, is open.

As he did last year, Vigliotta opened the Blue Point place a few weeks earlier than he used to. If he learned anything from the pandemic, he said it’s that the Blue Point location would thrive opening earlier. The snack bar and pub also did well staying open later than usual before closing for the winter last November, he said.

Vigliotta referred to it as "going back to my roots."

"It kind of opened our eyes to maybe open a little earlier and staying open a little later in the season," he said. "We figured we were just going to ride that wave and see if it’s going to keep on doing what it’s doing."

Trying to save the Patchogue business proved to be impossible, he said, adding that selling the lease should help him recoup some of the losses.

"It was more of the uncertainty, not knowing when the restrictions were going to end," Vigliotta said. "The space isn’t very big, so if it’s only 75% [maximum capacity] … it was only going to be 12 tables."

Vigliotta prefers to see the pandemic’s economic challenges as a blessing in disguise. The Blue Point shack and its food truck should be enough to make a living, and then some, he said.

"It’s been a grind for the past couple of years," Vigliotta said. "It’s taken a couple of hits, but we think this is the best thing for us."

— CARL MACGOWAN

The Nutty Irishman and 317 Main Street, Farmingdale

Open ‘We need government to support businesses, not to destroy them’

Joe Fortuna, owner of The Nutty Irishman bar and the 317 Main Street restaurant in the village, said he brought back 25 of the 50 employees he had to lay off or furlough last year.

But though capacity limits have been loosened, he said he still faces hurdles.

"With barriers that I have, I can’t get any more tables inside," Fortuna said. "We will do whatever is mandated to stay open."

Fortuna said he has awaited a Paycheck Protection Program loan for his businesses since January. The shutdown has given him time to think about the tricky relationship between the government and free enterprise.

"We need government to support businesses, not to destroy them, because businesses employ people," Fortuna said. "As a business owner, you have to give back to the community because that’s who supports you. But when you get knocked down and then you don’t have the government to support you, you can’t give back to the community."

Though Village Mayor Ralph Ekstrand said he’s optimistic the village’s downtown will see activities such as outdoor dining this summer, he’s taking a "wait and see" approach when it comes to other events that are limited due to pandemic gathering restrictions.

"That nullifies a music festival where we get five to nine thousand" people, he said. "We’re hoping that in the future we can."

— KELDY ORTIZ

Great Neck Diner, Great Neck

Open ‘We survived ... We are very lucky’

Rorie Miller worried last April about her restaurant’s survival.

Miller, who co-owns the Great Neck Diner on Grace Avenue with her father, Michael Wach, saw her revenue plunge by 75%. She had to lay off 80% of her more than 25 employees.

A year later, Miller has hired most of them back as business slowly picked up. She’s also seen some regular customers return for the first time since the pandemic.

"I definitely feel optimistic. I’m excited for what’s to come in the summer," said Miller of Port Washington. "What a crazy year. We survived. I’m proud to say that we didn’t have to close — not one day during the entire pandemic. … We are very lucky."

Ron Edelson, executive director of Great Neck Plaza village’s Business Improvement District, described the business community’s mood as "hopeful, but reticent to become truly overjoyed."

"They are hopeful, yes. But I do believe there’s still some fear [and] trepidation for downtowns all over, not just in Great Neck," Edelson said. "Over the past year, given that so many people have become used to shopping online for everything … we have yet to see necessarily what the impact of that will be long-term."

While some businesses are on track to recovery, Edelson said it might take others longer. Dry cleaners or nail salons, for example, might still be struggling due to remote working and a limited frequency of events where attendees dress up.

"They are not wearing their outfits to the extent they did before, so they are going to a dry cleaner less," he said. "Those types of industries that basically are dependent upon them for business, it’s not back yet."

— DANDAN ZOU

Monogram Shop, East Hampton

Open ‘This should be manageable’

When the Monogram Shop was forced to close during the early months of the pandemic last year, co-owner Valerie Smith went a different route to promote her business: Instagram.

"That was certainly a tool in the tool box that I hadn’t particularly been aware of," she said.

With continuing vaccine campaigns — and lessons learned from adopting new tools and technology — Smith said this summer will be better than last year’s season.

"We’ve also been through a COVID summer, so we’ve all learned how to navigate that," she said. "This should be manageable in terms of being open and functioning pretty normally, as long as we continue the mitigation efforts."

Mark Smith, who has co-owned Rowdy Hall in the village since 1996, along with other businesses in Sagaponack and Amagansett, said managing a business in a pandemic is a learning experience because you have to be prepared for "the worst-case scenario."

"You have to be able to adjust your business rapidly to the prevailing situation," said Smith, who noted that all employees have been brought back.

He said he’s optimistic about business going well into the summer and beyond.

"Certainly by fall, I think there’s going to be a stronger sense of normalcy," Smith said.

Steve Haweeli, immediate past president of the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce, said businesses in the village have now adjusted to their new realities.

"I’m not saying that everybody survives, but these small-business owners are survivors," Haweeli said.

— KELDY ORTIZ

Photography by Steve Pfost / Newsday, Danielle Silverman, Johnny Simon and Doug Kuntz

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