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How LI destinations, hotels and eateries are getting ready for summer

Ivan Sayles, co-owner of Rachel's Waterside Grill in Freeport, has taken creative measures to make sure his restaurant can keep going during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Newsday / Daysi Calavia-Robertson

For many in Long Island's tourism industry, it looks like summer may not be coming this year. 

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, businesses that depend on visitor spending, from hotels and restaurants to museums and other attractions, are feeling the pain. 

Mandated closures to slow the spread of the virus have rocked the Island's $6.1 billion tourism and hospitality industry, experts said. Thousands of restaurant and hotel workers across the region have been laid off.  

 And recovery will not be as simple as turning the spigot back on.

Even when reopenings are given the green light, enticing guests to come back  will depend on who can make them feel the safest. The businesses that can best execute safety measures and best communicate that message will beat competitors and survive, said Mark Irgang, president of the Long Island Hospitality Association. 

At this time last year, industry insiders were worry-free, abuzz in anticipation of the coming Memorial Day weekend — the start of the summer spending season for travelers and busiest time of year for LI's leisure and hospitality businesses. 

"Sadly, this year, that's just not the case," said Peter Kaplan, 68, owner of the 20-room Grassmere Inn in Westhampton Beach. "This is the time when we usually start ramping up for the summer and have tons of reservations on the books. Right now, we don't. We're struggling."  

The inn, which these days is very quiet, is being run by a reduced staff, Kaplan said.

In past years, Kaplan has hired up to 20 employees to assist with inn operations during the busy summer months, but this year "we'll probably be okay with just about six, maybe eight," he said.

Across the country, about 80% of hotel rooms are empty — a 68% drop when compared to the same period last year, according to a report by STR, a firm that analyzes hotel industry data.

At least one Long Island hotel has closed, and others are operating with skeleton crews. The Long Island Marriott in Uniondale shut its doors temporarily in mid-April, laying off 272 employees, said Naveen Shah, president and CEO of Navika Capital Group, owner of the hotel. Another 200 employees were furloughed at the Hilton in Melville, also owned by Navika, leaving only 10 employees on the payroll.  

The pandemic's force will ripple beyond the tourism business, as a decline in the state and local tax revenues generated by the industry will impact residents across the Island, said Kristen Jarnagin, president and CEO of Discover Long Island, the Island's official tourism promotion agency. 

Last year, local and state tax revenues  exceeded $740 million, she said. 

That's money "the counties rely on heavily to fund critical services," Jarnagin said.

Moreover, "more than 100,000 jobs ... are at stake" at restaurants, bars, hotels and other businesses that rely on tourism and hospitality, she said. 

Typically, Long Island hospitality businesses hire about 24,000 seasonal workers for the summer, according to New York State Department of Labor statistics. 

This year, that hiring won't be happening, Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said. "At least not for the first half of the summer season, which we're likely to lose," he said. 

If the second half of the summer is salvaged, hiring of seasonal workers won't be nearly as high, given new capacity limits and social distancing guidelines at beaches, parks and other attractions, Dow said. 

"The pandemic's impact on our travel and hospitality industry is greater than that caused by The Great Depression," he said. "Nationally, about 8 million industry workers are out of jobs. ... We're facing a $520 billion loss, which translates to a loss of about $1.2 trillion for the U.S. economy." 

Dow estimates the industry could make a comeback by 2021 but said many variables, including whether a vaccine for COVID-19 is found, will determine how things play out.

If an effective treatment for the illness is not found, lasting consumer fears over contracting the virus, even after restrictions on nonessential travel are lifted, are likely to make the tourism and hospitality sectors, which were among the first and hardest hit by the pandemic, among the last to recover, said Dorothy Roberts, vice president of hotel operations for Jericho-based hotel industry advisory firm Oxford Hospitality, which represents several Hilton hotels on the Island. 

Only businesses that put strategic recovery plans quickly in motion will manage to remain in operation, experts said.

Large hotel chains and smaller, independent hoteliers alike must make public safety and security a central focus, the hospitality association's Irgang said. Initiatives such as increased cleaning, contact-less mobile check-in, social distancing markers in common spaces, and limits on the number of people in elevators and other shared areas like bars and pools, are things consumers will be looking for, he said.

In response to the pandemic, Hilton and Marriott – two of the largest international hotel chains – have both publicized their efforts to adopt increased cleaning and disinfecting procedures, encourage mobile check-in and enact social distancing measures. 

Hilton partnered with RB, the maker of Lysol, and consulted with the Mayo Clinic, to create its new “Hilton Clean Stay with Lysol protection” program, which includes increased cleaning of public spaces and extra cleaning of high-touch areas like light switches, door handles, TV remotes and thermostats.

And as part of its initiative, Marriott will debut new technology, including electrostatic sprayers with hospital-grade disinfectant, to clean public spaces and rooms. It will also use ultraviolet light technology to sanitize keys and devices shared by guests and staff.

Kaplan, of the Grassmere, said he's ramped up cleaning at the inn, has closed down its common areas, and has stopped serving breakfast. 

"Another change is, we’re not having staff enter guests’ rooms to clean and instead [are] asking guests to put their dirty linens and towels in a garbage bag left outside the room for us to collect," he said.

"We'll then provide them clean ones in another bag left outside their door. ...It definitely requires outside-the-box thinking  to minimize contact between staff and guests and keep everyone as safe as possible." 

Riverhead resident Kelly Coughlan, 29, a mother of three who is six months pregnant, was excited for a three-day getaway to Montauk she had planned for her family. 

"But with everything going on with the virus, it's a total bummer but we can't do it. It's too risky," she said.

Her daughters, 12, 8, and 4, are also disappointed, Coughlan said. But Coughlan, who's been out of work since March when the podiatrist office she works at closed after two of her colleagues tested positive for the virus, said she told her girls it was smarter to stay home and save money for when the baby comes.

"They're excited for the baby so I think that helped soften the blow," she said.  "It's unfortunate, but I wouldn't feel safe taking the girls out there, staying at a hotel and all of that, and of course, my husband doesn't want anything to happen to us, either, so he agrees." 

Like hotels, restaurants will also have to redesign the way they do business, taking measures that uphold social distancing guidelines, such as spacing tables farther apart and making servers wear masks and gloves. 

Celebrity chef Tom Schaudel, 67, owner of several Long Island restaurants including Italian eatery A Mano in Mattituck, A Lure Chowder House and Oysteria in Southold, and Kingfish Oyster Bar in Westbury, said the pandemic knocked his businesses for a loop. 

"At A Mano, we're doing about two-thirds of what we'd normally do ... so, we're doing fairly okay selling take-out pizza and pasta, but at the other restaurants, I mean, there's not many people wanting to order oysters to go," he said. 

At all three locations, most employees have been laid off, Schaudel said. Between A Mano and A Lure, 45 workers lost their jobs -- only 8 remain on staff. And at Kingfish, which after a short stint selling take-out closed temporarily March 20, nearly 40 employees were laid off. 

"The take-out model just doesn't work for every place," said Courtney Schaudel, 36, Schaudel's daughter and manager at Kingfish. "For restaurants like ours, which are more geared towards a fine-dining experience, it's not sustainable. A full recovery for us is likely to take a long, long time." 

Businesses on the East End, "we live and die by the summer season. A couple of rain showers will knock you out, so imagine what a pandemic can do," Tom Schaudel said.

"Once we do reopen, there's no guarantee people will come. We're sure some will still be too afraid, and if we're only allowed to operate at 50%, 25% capacity anyway ... whose business model can really survive this?" 

When the restaurants reopen, Schaudel will require employees to wear masks and gloves, instruct staff to wash their hands frequently, disinfect tables after every guest, and  put up signs reminding patrons to stay at least 6 feet from each other. 

"We'll also make hand sanitizer available to employees and guests and do the best we can to make everyone feel as protected as we can," he said.

"I've seen all sorts of things, including shower curtains between tables and a bunch of other creative ways to try to make people feel less nervous about dining out, but our main plan is to follow CDC guidelines. ... Even then, we know some people won't come no matter what we do, but all we can do is our best and stay hopeful." 

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration recently released guidelines encouraging restaurateurs to discontinue self-serve buffets and salad bars, place floor markings and signs to encourage social distancing and disinfect high-touch surface areas frequently. 

Ivan Sayles, who has for 23 years owned Rachel's Waterside Grill on Freeport's Nautical Mile, said he's faced many business challenges but none as enormous as the pandemic. 

"The day after Sandy, we were already rebuilding – 'okay let's do this, we got this,'" he said. "With this, we're learning as we go. What works, what doesn't work. We've been doing all sorts of things to try to stay open." 

Sayles, who owns the eatery with Richard Venticinque, noticed people on social media complaining about not being able to find Chinese restaurants that were open and doing take-out or delivery, so he decided to venture into New York City to buy egg roll wrappers and fortune cookies and was soon selling Chinese food out of his seafood restaurant. 

"We did a deal where we were giving out a roll of toilet paper with every meal, we sold a build-your-own taco kit for Cinco de Mayo, we put together a breakfast-in-bed kit for Mother's Day that included a build-your-own mimosa for mom," he said.

"We're trying it all because we know that without the summer business, how will we survive come November, December?" 

Sayles said he's already taking steps to help guests at Rachel's feel safe when the restaurant reopens. He hired cleaning company Majestic Cleaning Service to steam-clean the restaurant, is removing stools from the bar to limit the number of people sitting there, and is contemplating serving guests on disposable plates and providing them with disposable cutlery. 

"Our servers will wear masks and gloves, we'll have hand sanitizer available for everyone, we're establishing an entrance and exit to avoid cross traffic ... and we're setting up our system so that guests at their tables can order their meals on their phones," he said. 

"And if by putting shower curtains in between tables, we'd be allowed to have more seating, then we'd do that, too." 

At Old Westbury Gardens, an attraction that draws about 75,000 visitors a year to its mansion and grounds, which was set to open on April 1 but remains closed, all of its spring events and its largest annual fundraiser, Gardeners’ Fair, were canceled, CEO Nancy Costopulos said. 

"The virus is having a significant financial effect on us," she said. 

Up to 70% of visitors to the site's 1906 Phipps mansion and its English walled garden and woodlands come from Memorial Day to Labor Day. 

Though a specific opening date is still unknown, Costopulos and her staff have been working on a reopening plan. 

"We're implementing timed ticketing, which will allow us to keep tabs on how many people are on the grounds at any given time and in that way establish capacity limits," she said. "People also tend to gravitate to a few key areas in the Gardens, so we'll have staff monitor those areas to ensure that capacity limits are not exceeded." 

But for now, "there is no 2020 revenue from attendance," Costopulos said. "We're asking members and donors for help,  taking advantage of the stimulus [loan] offerings and looking at foundations that might help us with funding." 

An opening date for 96-acre Splish Splash in Calverton, a water park among the largest in the tristate area, is still undetermined, a company spokesman said, adding that Splish Splash remains committed to opening this summer as soon and as safely as possible. 

"Our highest priority remains the safety of all of our team members and guests. We’ll continue closely following the guidelines set forth by federal, state and local government officials and health experts as we prepare to resume operations."

The spokesman said he was unable to provide any further details. 

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