This story was reported and written by Daysi Calavia-Robertson, Maura McDermott, Victor Ocasio, Ken Schachter and Sarina Trangle.
Long Island business owners cheered the news that the region’s economy can begin to reopen Wednesday, even as some retail proprietors expressed qualms about their ability to remain afloat.
As the state gradually lifts restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Tuesday that Long Island could begin the first phase of reopening, allowing work to resume in local construction and manufacturing sectors, as well as curbside retail or in-store pickup and wholesale trade and agriculture, and forestry, fishing and hunting.
The reopening “is going to be a huge psychological boost for the region,” said Kevin Law, president and CEO of the Long Island Association, the region’s largest trade group. “I think Long Islanders are anxious to get back to work.”
Law said business owners are hopeful that there will not be significant increases in virus-related hospitalizations and deaths, so the state will continue to lift economic restrictions and “all businesses will be able to participate in the recovery of our economy.” The state is expecting to lift restrictions further as long as the region's health metrics continue to improve.
The shutdown has caused “horrific” economic damage to the region, with Long Island’s unemployment claims surging to levels 20 times higher than a year ago, the second-highest increase in the state after New York City, said John Rizzo, a professor of health economics and clinical outcomes research at Stony Brook University and chief economist for the Long Island Association.
Some of the continued restrictions on economic activity – such as prohibiting shopping at most stores except for in-store or curbside pickup – will make it difficult for some businesses to survive, Rizzo said.
“If you make it unappealing for patrons and unprofitable for businesses,” Rizzo said, the reopening “will not work.”
Indeed, some retail store owners expressed fear about their prospects for economic survival, even as construction companies and manufacturers hailed the lifting of restrictions.
The Plainview-based children’s clothing chain Denny’s will offer in-store and curbside pick-up starting Wednesday, the chain’s vice president Jeffrey Klein said.
Klein said employees will have their temperatures checked and will wear masks and gloves and continuously wipe down surfaces. Any customers entering the store will need to wear masks.
But, he said, "If we're doing curbside, if I'm able to reach 10% of what my sales would have been, I'll say it was a home run. But it'll never happen. We need to be able to open the doors."
He said Denny's, which outfits many kids for sleepaway camp, is reeling from summer camp cancellations. And even if camps are in session, shoppers are not often interested in virtually selecting from thousands of items offered by vendors with different sizing systems, according to Klein. He said his team has been doing virtual appointments, showing attire on FaceTime and working to accommodate customers.
Klein let about 200 staffers go when the shutdown began in mid-March.
He is now struggling to get many to return because, with the $600 boost for the unemployed, they receive more in unemployment than they would working.
At the Book Revue in Huntington, general manager Julie Wernersbach said the book store does not have enough employees to manage in-store pickups. Instead, workers will continue to have books mailed to customers who buy them online. They will also continue leaving orders at a cafe attached to Book Revue, which has been open for takeout. And employees will begin delivering books to customers parked at the curb, with all involved wearing masks, Wernersbach said.
After the shutdown, Book Revue let all but three employees go, she said, adding that the store enjoyed a surge in business as people stocked up ahead of the lockdown. Since then, it has fielded far fewer orders.
"We are nowhere near what we had been making when we were open," she said.
Beyond thinking about the physical setup and safety protocols, Book Revue's viability may depend on negotiating with publishing houses, according to Wernersbach.
"We buy books from them, and we owe them money. How much wiggle room can they have?" Wernersbach said.
Some construction and manufacturing firms expressed optimism about their ability to bounce back after the shutdown.
Barry Skolnick, co-founder of fiber-optic cable manufacturer TiniFiber Inc., said the company moved into its 18,000-square-foot Farmingdale facility just a month before the March shutdown.
The company, which furloughed 27 of 30 employees, has brought them all back to tackle a “tremendous backlog,” he said. "We can start the engines up to full throttle."
Tritec Real Estate, the East Setauket developer behind Patchogue’s downtown revitalization and the $750-million Ronkonkoma Hub project, has been preparing to reopen since its operations were halted in March.
“We’ve been working to secure enough personal protective equipment for all workers, figuring out ways to distribute it safely, and reaching out to subcontractors to go over what our new rules are going to be,” Chris Kelly, vice president of marketing for Tritec, said.
On the day construction sites had to shut down in March, there had been about 80 workers at Tritec’s 260-unit luxury housing complex under construction in Lindenhurst, he said.
When workers return to the site, they’ll be entering a completely different work environment, Kelly said. It will probably take about a week to ramp back up, he said.
“They’ll be required to wear masks, gloves and goggles, we’ll have hand sanitizing stations on site, which we’ll of course, encourage them to use, start times will be staggered to avoid too many people coming in at once, crews will be separated to ensure social distancing measures, and we’ll have a contact tracing system that will make a noise if workers get too close to each other,” he said.
"Everybody wants to be safe, go to work and then come home to their families," he said.
Smaller construction firms also were celebrating their ability to return to work.
“It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks,” Kevin Desmond, owner of Clearview Roofing and Construction Inc., said of his 15-job backlog. “Amen.”
The 59-year-old Port Washington business, which did a few emergency jobs during the lockdown, will restart with the same 12-person staff, he said.
When employees are working on a roof, they are spaced apart and far removed from contact with anyone else, he said.
Howard Rowland, president of EW Howell, one of the oldest general contractors in the state, said the Plainview firm is ready to get back to business.
Near the start of the shutdown, Rowland said the construction firm went from working on 30 projects across the region to just 10 jobs. Since mid-March, the company has petitioned the state to have several of its projects deemed essential, bringing the number of active projects to 20.
“If we have been operating at 70% capacity for the past 10 weeks or so, we’ll be operating at 90% Wednesday,” Rowland said Tuesday.
While the company has been able to operate at a limited capacity, Rowland said the initial halt in business meant that roughly 10% of EW Howell’s 160-person staff was let go near the start of the crisis. Since then, the firm has been able to hire back some of those positions.
Although the firm has taken great precautions to make the office safe for employees, one of the biggest considerations with the reopening are the child-care needs of employees.
“Not everybody has access to family or nannies,” Rowland said. “It’s kind of a mixed bag. We’re trying hard to appreciate those situations as best we can.”
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