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Downtowns Deflated: Small businesses vs. COVID-19

Closures associated with COVID-19 are threatening the health of Long Island’s many downtowns and the livelihoods of those who own businesses and employ workers there.

The renaissance of once-dormant downtowns has become increasingly important to municipalities that want to attract millennials, young families and retirees to areas with a transportation hub, retail and entertainment options and a vibrant nightlife. Though shopkeepers and restaurateurs express an almost paradoxical optimism that their businesses will survive, the virus is challenging the ability of once-vibrant areas to spring back to life after the pandemic retreats and will make it harder for those languishing or in the midst of revitalization efforts to move forward.

“Some of them are not going to be able to sustain it,” said Islip Town Councilman James P. O’Connor, who recommends residents shop local to help businesses get through the crisis. “Unfortunately, I think that is the reality.” 

Here is what business owners, local leaders and chamber officials told Newsday about their fight to survive COVID-19:

GREAT NECK PLAZA: ‘How long do they have to keep holding on?’

In recent decades, Great Neck Plaza’s downtown has faced many challenges, including the need to compete with online retailers and keep up with the village’s changing demographics. But none of that rivals the magnitude of a pandemic that has forced nonessential businesses to shutter and pedestrians off the streets.

As village officials adopted the transit-oriented development zoning in 2011 and pushed for revitalization efforts, Mayor Jean Celender said the downtown, which has about a 10% vacancy rate, was “doing well.”

Stretching along Middle Neck Road, Grace Avenue and Bond Street, the downtown area has more than 260 restaurants, clothing boutiques, hair salons and jewelry shops. It is anchored by a heavily traveled Long Island Rail Road station, which is less than half a mile away from anywhere in the 0.3-square-mile village.

But facing a new reality, Celender — like public officials and business owners across the island — is worried about small businesses as uncertainties abound.

“How long do they have to keep holding on to be able to survive and come back? … Is it a matter of them lasting four weeks or five weeks? Would they be able to apply for these [Small Business Administration] relief funds? And that would be sufficient for them?” said Celender. "I don’t have a crystal ball to know the answers to those questions.”

Some business leaders said the survival of businesses largely depends on how fast monetary assistance can be delivered and how soon businesses can reopen.

“That’s the hope of everyone, that it happens quickly enough,” said Ron Edelson, executive director of the village’s business improvement district. “Once we are told we can go back and it’s safe to do that, we all get back as quickly as possible to [have] that type of normal life again.”

Great Neck Diner

EMPLOYEES: More than 25

LAYOFFS: 80% of the staff 

REVENUE: Down 75%

Since the coronavirus outbreak started, Rorie Miller, who co-owns the Great Neck Diner on Grace Avenue with her father, Michael Wach, has had to lay off 80% of the staff, including bussers, cashiers, waiters and waitresses. The diner is now only open for takeout and delivery, and revenue has plummeted by 75%, Miller said.

With barely any cushion to weather the crisis, Miller said she worries about whether she can bring in enough revenue to keep the doors open.

“Our goal is to just get by and pay our bills and the staff we do have to remain open for our local community,” said Miller, 37, of Port Washington.

SAYVILLE: ‘Our main goal here is to keep them alive’

After her son was born, Eileen Tyznar would put him in a stroller and walk around Sayville’s downtown. The business owners all knew her son, Matthew Tyznar Jr., now 25, by name.

Years later when she battled cancer twice, many in the local business community visited to check on her, some delivered care packages and others drove her to treatment.

“To me, it’s so much more than a regular downtown,” said Tyznar, 55, president of the Greater Sayville Chamber of Commerce, her voice breaking with emotion. “I know every store owner by name. They are like my family.”

Sitting midway between Manhattan and Montauk, Sayville had been thriving for years. Its downtown, known for its walkability, has a mix of restaurants, clothing boutiques, home-goods shops, a winery and a movie theater.

The Long Island Rail Road train station is only blocks from Montauk Highway, known locally as Main Street. Local beaches are within walking distance. Tyznar described the area as “charming, nostalgic and old-fashioned.” Councilman O’Connor called it “the picture of Americana.” 

Businesses that had been busy preparing for increasing foot traffic and activities along Main Street and Railroad Avenue are now in survival mode.

Out of the Blue

EMPLOYEES: 1

LAYOFFS: 1

REVENUE: Nearly $0

Tara Farrell, owner of the women’s accessories and gift shop Out of the Blue, recently expanded her business’ digital presence by creating a Facebook store, taking in a few online orders. But sales in general have plunged to nearly nothing given her shop relied almost exclusively on foot traffic.

Yet Farrell, 61, tries not to look at the negativity brought on by the outbreak.

“I’m always positive in thinking that we will get back to normal,” she said.

The Chamber of Commerce, which has more than 300 members, has started a relief fund, Tyznar said. It also hosted sessions to help business owners apply for coronavirus disaster loans with the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Once the dust settles, Tyznar said businesses will have to reexamine their strategy, save up a rainy-day fund and boost their digital presence.

“Our main goal here is to keep them alive and present,” Tyznar said. “When this is over, we will be throwing them the biggest event of a welcome-home that you can imagine.”

MONTAUK: ‘The town is like a ghost town’

Tens of thousands of visitors were expected in March to flood to Edgemere Road and Main Street in Montauk for the hamlet’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, an annual tradition to celebrate the end of a dreary winter.

None came this year.

The March 22 event was postponed as New York saw a surge of coronavirus cases, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered nonessential businesses to close on the same day of the parade.

As a seasonal resort destination known for its pristine beaches, the 17.5-square-mile hamlet on the easternmost point of Long Island became increasingly popular as an alternative to the Hamptons for summer retreat.

“During July and August, it’s a very thriving downtown,” said East Hampton Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, noting that restaurants, bars and hotels are often packed.

But this spring, Montauk’s downtown, whose biggest threat was rising sea levels, was left to look like it never woke from its hibernating winter.

As the days inch closer to mid-May when peak season begins, business owners are growing increasingly anxious over an uncertain summer that typically brings them their lion’s share of income.

Paul Monte, president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, said the lifeline to carry the businesses through is monetary assistance. The biggest challenge local businesses face is “trying to ascertain when the best time will be to reopen and what the new normal would be,” he said.

“When things do get back to some resemblance of normal, we are fairly positive that there will be a return to visitation, tourism and all of the things that Montauk is known for,” Monte said.

Montauk Bake Shoppe

EMPLOYEES: 40 

LAYOFFS: 40

REVENUE: $0

“The town is like a ghost town,” said Rashid Sulehri, 46, whose business shuttered in early April. The store’s closure means its five year-round workers, as well as about three dozen staffers employed in the busy summer, are out of a job.

During the two weeks it stayed open since March 20, Sulehri said he saw his staff and customers scared, even when the shop operated through a window.

“With so much fear on the street, we closed it after two weeks,” said Sulehri, who lives in Lake Grove. “This is devastating. We are having to continue to pay all of our bills with no revenue coming in.”

Like most seasonable businesses that close after Thanksgiving week and reopen before the parade, Sulehri said he still has to pay rent and utilities for the nearly four months when his business remained shut.

“In the middle of March, a sign of relief comes in that: ‘Now OK, we are going to have some cash coming in that will help us pay the bills,’ ” Sulehri said before letting out a sigh. “That is rough.”

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