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On the job: Essential workers keep Long Island moving during pandemic

Letter carrier Henry Lamont Salley, of Roosevelt, has

Letter carrier Henry Lamont Salley, of Roosevelt, has been walking a route for the Hempstead Post Office for 22 years. Salley has continued that route during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

"You do it because you have to," says letter carrier Henry Lamont Salley.

It's a simple phrase whose execution speaks volumes about Long Island’s essential workers, those who stayed on the job during the coronavirus pandemic. Like firefighters who run into burning homes when others are running out, essential workers have gone where many feared to tread during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Essential workers came to the fore in late March after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the “New York State on Pause” executive order, closing nonessential businesses statewide. Exceptions were made for such services as groceries and health care.

While many Long Islanders sheltered at home, nurses, letter carriers, police officers and bus drivers continued to clock in, sometimes around the clock. They answered emergency calls, staffed ICUs, delivered mail and drove municipal buses taking fellow workers to their own essential jobs.

With food security a concern, especially during the early days of the pause, they stocked supermarket shelves, raised and harvested fresh vegetables, worked at restaurants and shipped food donations to those hard hit by the coronavirus.

They are worth a special mention with the approach of Labor Day, the federal holiday first observed 138 years ago with a parade on Sept. 5, 1882, in Manhattan. Conceived by the labor movement and dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers, Monday's holiday salutes “contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor website.

Here we profile eight essential workers who have kept at their jobs with a minimum of fanfare and a maximum of dedication.

COVID on his beat

In five years as a Nassau County police officer, David Cote has responded to a wide variety of calls and handed out his share of traffic tickets.

This spring added a new layer of responsibility and unexpected risk for Cote, a Long Island native.

Assigned to the Third Precinct, Cote covers two of Long Island communities hard-hit by COVID-19: East Meadow, which as of late August had recorded 998 positive coronavirus cases since the outbreak began, and Uniondale, with 1,373.

“Every single call our guys went to, whether it was domestic, a noise complaint or a fight, they had to go in with the awareness of COVID,” Cote said by telephone from police headquarters in Mineola. “Prior to entering a home, our medic made sure we were equipped.”

Gloves and masks became essential gear whether Cote was responding to a home or a hospital. On calls, he became a COVID-19 educator, discussing social distancing with the people he met “to prevent the spread as best as we could,” he said.

His work did not go unappreciated. “With most of the calls that were aided calls [requests for medical assistance], people were very appreciative” he said. “They knew it was a scary time, so they thanked us” — with donations of pizza waiting to be eaten, if sometimes cold, at the precinct in Williston Park.

As the infection rate remains low and life on Long Island returns to a semblance of normalcy, Cote said, “I’m just happy to have helped out people.”

A slice of comfort

In pre-pandemic times, Dana and Aldo Gervasi did a steady business in slices at Sal’s Famous Pizza, a popular grab-and-go stop near the Babylon high school and the LIRR station, said Dana, who has co-owned and operated Sal’s with her husband, Aldo, for the past eight years.

But in March, coronavirus fears cut foot traffic to a trickle, threatening the pizzeria that had been a community fixture for three decades under previous ownership. Although the couple worried about catching the virus, they stayed open. “We have bills to pay and mouths to feed,” explained Dana, 43, who has three young children with Aldo, 49.

They put a sign on the door limiting entry to one customer at a time, sanitized counters and doorknobs regularly, and closed Sundays for deep cleaning.

“It was exhausting,” Dana said.

It helped, though. Customers lined up 15 deep on a Friday night, and curbside pickup and “ring and run” delivery were added — the latter by Dana herself, driving the company car wearing gloves and a black mask.

Feeling thankful, the couple donated meals to workers at hospitals, nursing homes and police precincts. Regular customers hard hit by COVID paid as little as $5 for a pizza, Dana said. When graduation exercises were canceled at Babylon High School, Dana organized a socially distanced yearbook signing and supplied the pizzas.

They are happy to have survived “a very dark period,” Dana said. “We are just extremely grateful that it is kind of slowly getting back to semi-normal.”

Driven to help

As a bus driver for Nassau Inter-County Express, David Nehrebecki is an essential worker’s essential worker.

Nehrebecki, 64, of East Meadow, spent the pandemic working Monday to Friday on a split shift starting at 5:57 a.m. and ending at 6:49 p.m., with a break from 8:48 a.m. to 1:08 p.m. His route on Hempstead Turnpike between the Hempstead and Jamaica terminals was a vital commuting link for nurses and home health and nursing home aides.

“To be able to be a part of that was great for me,” Nehrebecki said. “I love helping people.”

Nehrebecki said NICE followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines by regularly disinfecting his vehicle, providing him with masks and gloves, and installing a chain partition between the driver and passengers. Riders entered through the bus’ rear door to limit interactions. (Rides were free until June 27, so there was no need to collect fares.)

“I felt perfectly safe to go to work,” said Nehrebecki, who grew up in Rego Park, Queens, and worked as a tractor trailer driver for the former A&P and Waldbaum’s chains. He and his wife, Denise, have three grown sons and six grandchildren. His spare hours are spent driving around in a classic 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.

On the job, he aims to be friendly and helpful, greeting riders as they board. “When they leave, I say, 'have a nice day, be safe,'” he said.

His efforts were recognized in June, when he won a citation from NICE for helping a woman struggling to get on his bus. Even during the pandemic, Nehrebecki said, “I love being a bus driver.” 

Working through loss

“I didn’t think of myself as an essential worker, but I knew I was in an essential business,” said Luis Jaco, 27, of Valley Stream, manager of Trader Joe’s in Merrick. “If the public saw that a grocery store was shut down, it would look like pandemonium,” he said.

Jaco kept Trader Joe's shoppers supplied with their favorite items even as his father, Manuel Jaco, a kidney transplant survivor, contracted the coronavirus in March. “He was in the hospital for three weeks,” Jaco said of his father, an electrician who died in April of complications from COVID-19.

“My father gave me 27 happy years. He got to meet my son, Luis, who was born 15 months ago,” Jaco said. Jaco’s partner and Luis’ mother, Mallory Vega, is a surgical technician at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola.

During the pandemic’s peak, Trader Joe’s hours and staff were reduced and half of its eight checkout lines were closed. Nether curbside pickup nor delivery was offered because “we don’t have a computerized system,” Jaco said. Instead, up to 25 patrons at a time were allowed into the store, face masks required. For a while, rationed paper towels — a hot item during the pause — caused complaints.

“Sometimes you might deal with someone who’s mean, but you get paid to deal with that,” Jaco reasoned.

The store closed for three days in the spring after a crew member, who hadn’t been at work for a week and a half, tested positive for the virus. But the store has remained open since.

“For me it’s about keeping my staff safe and letting them know ‘we appreciate your being here,’” Jaco said. As he grieves for his father, Jaco said, “I’m taking it day-by-day.”

Making his appointed rounds

Letter carrier Henry Lamont Salley, 49, of Roosevelt, has been walking a route for the Hempstead Post Office for 22 years. He’s delivered mail and packages through 10 inches of snow and heavy summer rain — most recently Tropical Storm Isaias — and during post-9/11 uncertainty.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has been different, bringing an invisible enemy indoors.

Salley is one of 7,624 employees at 192 post offices across Long Island, including 53 branches in Nassau County and 139 in Suffolk, according to Postal Service spokesman Xavier C. Hernandez. All post offices on Long Island have remained open throughout the pandemic, he said.

“At the beginning, we were all a little nervous,” Salley said. “We have a big office with a lot of people walking around.” Gloves, disinfectant and rearranged mail racking cases have assuaged fears, Salley said.

Salley grew up in Manhattan, one of four children of a mechanical engineer and a telephone operator. The family moved to Roosevelt in 1983. He played football during his senior year at Roosevelt High School, briefly studied liberal arts at Nassau Community College and worked at retail stores in Roosevelt Field mall before joining the post office in 1998.

A familiar face on his route, Salley enjoys chatting with customers — nowadays through screen doors. “My customers show me a lot of appreciation,” he said. “They offer me water and Gatorade, and say, ‘if you need anything knock on my door.’”

He’s careful about his own health, eating right and taking vitamin and mineral supplements. “I don’t drink or smoke, I do pushups, situps and pullups three times a week.”

On the job as well, he said, “There are a lot of ups and downs. I try to be positive about things.”

Caring for the sick

As intensive care units filled to capacity this spring at Northwell Health’s Long Island hospitals, medical professionals battled a little-known disease.

Michaela Weil, 25, of Bellmore, a registered nurse in the ICU at Plainview Hospital, was among them. Weil was one of approximately 1,000 registered nurses working in ICUs at the 11 Northwell Long Island hospitals that accepted COVID patients. She rarely left the floor during her 121/2-hour shifts, and she picked up extra shifts. She changed medicine drips and moved patients into prone positions to improve breathing.

When patients were going to be intubated, Weil was there. She held up an iPad so patients could communicate with family members before the procedure. “It was really emotional because it might possibly be the last time they were talking to their loved ones,” she said.

Growing up in Wantagh, Weil wanted to be a doctor. She eventually followed in the footsteps of her mother, Patricia Weil, a Northwell nurse practitioner and certified diabetes educator whom she often bumped into between shifts. Michaela earned a bachelor of science in nursing from the University of South Carolina in Columbia and has been working at Northwell for four years, the past two as an ICU nurse.

“I wanted to go into the ICU because I really like the challenge,” Weil said. Those came thick and fast during the first wave of COVID-19 patients in March, when the ICU, which usually has about 14 patients, maxed out at its 22-patient capacity.

Nurses on duty “had to be totally geared up with PPE [personal protective equipment] before you entered the ICU because every patient was COVID,” she said.

A handful of the patients who recovered have kept in touch with the nursing staff. One survivor sent a joyous dance video. 

“I still do believe it’s a great career,” Weil said of nursing, though she worries about a second coronavirus wave in the fall. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen in our regular flu season.”

Feeding those in need

Island Harvest, a leading Long Island hunger relief organization, has seen a steep increase in the need for food donations as people have lost jobs and loved ones.

As a warehouse supervisor, Jo-Val Nance, 43, of Wyandanch, has been vital to meeting that need, especially in Brentwood, Elmont and other communities hard-hit by COVID-19.

“Through her [Nance’s] support, we increased our output by 21% in four or five months,” said Randi Shubin Dresner, the organization’s president and CEO.

Nance grew up in Wyandanch and graduated in 1995 from Wyandanch Memorial High School. After getting a degree in history from Mount Saint Mary’s University, in Emmitsburg, Maryland, she joined the U.S. Navy, serving from 2000 to 2015 and rising to petty officer first class.

Her Navy service was eventful, to say the least. “I was on the USS Detroit when the [Twin] Towers went down, and we went to the harbor to fill the ships up with fuel and then went directly out to the Middle East,” Nance said. She left the Navy to care for her widowed mother, who died last year. Back home she joined the Wheatley Heights-Martin A. Kessler Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2912, where she is post commander, and started looking for a job.

Impressed with Nance’s military training, Island Harvest hired her to coordinate its Operation Hope mobile pantry for veterans. Within two years, Nance became supervisor of warehouses in Hauppauge, Uniondale and Calverton where a staff of 30 receives an increasing flow of donations from food drives, schools, churches, businesses and big-box stores.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, in March, we didn’t get as many donations, but it's picked up,” Nance said. Food products are available at the warehouse drive-through or sent out in a fleet of eight trucks to pantries, malls and community sites.

Nance’s Navy training has served her well. “It’s boots on the ground in communities that really need the help,” she said.

Little farm that could

When city people began fleeing to the East End this spring during the pandemic, the mother-and-son team at Deep Roots Farm in Southold stepped up their game to fill a growing demand for fresh veggies, eggs, pork chops and chicken.

“A lot of people who have second homes here came out during COVID — and they stayed,” said Michelle Hart, 57, a retired Shoreham-Wading River special-education teacher who purchased Deep Roots five years ago with her son, Thomas, 35.

As the pandemic spread elsewhere in late winter, life went on as usual for the Harts, who work the farm with two paid helpers. They were up at sunrise feeding the pigs and chickens in the pasture and, by February, were planting in their greenhouses. March saw the seedlings transplanted to the fields.

The big push started when locavores began descending on their self-service farm stand on The Main Road, snapping up carrots, radishes and greens — arugula, mesclun, lettuce and, of course, kale.

“We got busy early and it hasn’t slowed,” Michelle said. Cars line up on weekend mornings to buy eggs as soon as they’re put out. Bok choy and other Asian greens, all raised on the Harts’ 8 acres, disappear quickly. By late August, the tomato crop was almost sold out.

What’s next for the little farm that could? Sweet potatoes and winter squash — the latter sold as edible pumpkins.

“There’s always work to be done on the farm,” Michelle said. “And it’s been super busy this year.”

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