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Long Island reopens: Scenes from the start of Phase One

Phase One of reopening has arrived on Long Island. Construction workers are back on job sites. Some stores have opened their doors for in-store pickup. Here’s the latest in our daily coronavirus wrap-up video. Credit: Newsday staff; Facebook / Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

Long Island began returning to work Wednesday after two months in lockdown.

Sales were slow. Employers, workers and customers had to adjust to the new normal in safety. But many businesses started to operate again for the first time since mid-March, as the state lifted restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The first phase of the reopening in Nassau and Suffolk included resuming low-risk businesses involved in construction, manufacturing and wholesale trade, as well as in-store pickup and fewer restrictions on curbside for retail. Agriculture, fishing, forestry and hunting were permitted again.

It was the first of four phases and an unusual beginning. Masks, gloves and social distancing rules remained in effect for patrons and employees while retailers were required to limit occupancy to 50%. 

Still, the reopening was welcome news for a region desperate for an economic infusion, even as business was slow to return.

These are some of their stories:

The scene in Patchogue

The first day of Long Island’s long-awaited reopening was no different for Blum’s apparel store in Patchogue than any other day during the shutdown. Despite online sales and mail orders, business was still terrible.

“Since March 17, it’s tough,” said Marc Siegel, co-owner of the swimwear and intimates shop started by his grandparents 93 years ago.

The store — normally packed this time of year with customers sampling beachwear for summer excursions to Fire Island — was empty Wednesday except for Siegel, co-owner Cherie Alleyne and one other employee.

“You come in here and nothing’s going on,” Siegel said. “And no money coming in.”

“We’ll never recover what we lost,” Alleyne added.

Blum’s was one of the few Patchogue retail stores open Wednesday. Its next-door neighbor, The Colony Shop, remained dark, as were jewelry stores and clothing boutiques. Some had signs in the windows directing customers to websites for online orders while a candy shop on East Main Street was closed, its windows covered by paper and a “Store for Rent” sign.

While online and mail order sales have tripled since March, Siegel said Blum's really needs old-fashioned foot traffic to thrive.

“We used to get a lot of people coming through, going to the corner stores,” Siegel said. “Now you can’t do it.” 

At the Record Stop on Railroad Avenue, there was no one browsing for rare Beatles discs or Bob Dylan bootleg albums.

Owner Jeff Berg said sales are down about 90% since March with store remaining in business throughout the past two months from loyal customers who place online orders or call just to chat.

“They like to call up and talk to us and get, somewhat, our musical expertise,” Berg said. “We’ve been able to sell online and keep our doors open — or closed.”

Hand sanitizers are set up near the front door for customers, whenever they are allowed back inside, Berg said. The store also will provide masks and gloves for anyone who needs them. Berg said he plans to start asking his four furloughed employees to come back to work.

Rock isn’t dead, and neither is the store, he said.

“I think,” Berg said, “we can start coming back a little bit.” — Carl MacGowan

In-store pickup in Commack

Tandy Jeckel's phone had been ringing off the hook all morning.

Jeckel's shop, TandyWear, a clothing boutique in Commack known for women’s fashions and colorful face masks, reopened its doors for in-store pickup Wednesday.

“I’m just ecstatic about the fact that people can come in," said Jeckel, 54. "People are feeling human again. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel."

Last month, TandyWear, located on Commack Road, reopened to the public for curbside pickup and delivery only after what Jeckel describes as two long weeks without business. She was allowed to institute curbside pickup then because the store sells masks, she said.

Jeckel's brick-and-mortar shop saw an avid response to curbside pickup for the fashion masks, she said, adding that Memorial Day weekend saw a flood of pickup orders.

“People would come for [curbside] pickup and say, ‘I can’t wait to just come in and peek,’" she said. "We’re sold out already of so much.” — Meghan Giannotta

Shuttered still in West Hempstead

Sage and Angie, a 3-year-old clothing boutique in West Hempstead, is now allowed to offer curbside pickup. But shop owner Sagine Pierre Charles, 40, is choosing to keep her doors shuttered, uncomfortable with even that level of contact with her customers.

“I’m a stylist and I’ve always taken pride in that one-on-one connection with each person who walks through our door but right now,” said Pierre Charles, who named the boutique after her daughters, Kayla Sage, 11, and Angelina, 8. “I have to first think about the health and safety of my daughters and of my mom.”

Her 63-year-old mother is immunocompromised and lives in Pierre Charles’ home.

Sales at the boutique have dropped almost 90% since the store, like thousands of other nonessential businesses, closed in March. The store carries a wide selection of modest wear worn by Jewish women. But with places of worship closed, those dresses have not sold.

“I’ve been getting by … trying to ramp up our online sales but it’s hard because for us, the website and selling through the website, was never a focus,” she said.

“We’ve always been more about the shopping experience. We’ve hosted tons of Afrocentric events, book signings, girl’s night out, mimosa sip and shop events … that’s what’s always worked best for us. People want to come and look around.” — Daysi Calavia-Robertson

Starting over in Mineola

A good start.

That’s how Cathy Whitley, owner and the sole employee of Robert’s Mens and Boys Wear in Mineola, describes the state’s decision to allow curbside pickup at her Jericho Turnpike shop.

“I’m excited. I’m hopeful. I’m happy. I thought it wasn’t going to be until the middle of June,” said Whitley, 57. “It was a nice surprise that it was sooner than what I had anticipated.”

Whitley’s store has been in business for 65 years but in the past two months it generated little revenue except for a few deliveries made to some longtime customers’ homes.

Whitley’s had a modest agenda for Wednesday: wash her windows, stock her inventory and place some hand sanitizers and disposable masks in the store for customers. She left by 7 p.m. and said she would be back again Thursday morning.

“Hopefully little by little, everything will get back to normal,” she said.

Few pedestrians could be spotted on Mineola’s downtown streets Wednesday afternoon except for hospital workers in purple uniforms, Third Track construction crews and store staff making deliveries or setting up shops for reopening.

Among them were Bob Fox, owner of Fox’s on Main Street, and several workers getting the apparel store ready for curbside pickup.

“It’s not great. But after all this time, it’s something,” said Fox, 62, of West Hempstead. “We’d been anxious. It’s been a long shutdown.”

At first glance, parts of the store looked almost like scenes frozen from March. Winter jackets still hang on some store racks, and a sign promoting a spring party on March 21, the day before all nonessential businesses were ordered to close, stood at the entrance.

“Everybody is just excited to get back to work,” said Oneesa Khan, 37, of Huntington, who was in the middle of sorting through boxes of shoes. “I’m trying to make the store look less March and more June.” — Dandan Zou

Building back

Racanelli Construction of Melville was eager to get back to business Wednesday after putting a pause on nearly 80% of its business over the last two months.

“We were preparing for this for weeks now,” said Martin Racanelli Jr., partner and principal of the family-owned firm, adding that almost all of the firm's project sales are active again.

The company has implemented social distancing rules, requires the use of masks, has workers fill out health questionnaires, set up washing stations at work sites and regularly spray sanitizes project sites.

Early in the crisis, Racanelli said, the company was forced to furlough some of its 130 employees. But a Paycheck Protection Program loan allowed him to return them to the payroll.

“We were highly impacted,” Racanelli said. “We had approximately 50 jobs going on when we got shut down. All but probably 10 of them were shut down.”

Beyond the impact on its own employees, Racanelli said a handful of subcontractors the family firm has worked with over the decades have gone out of business as a result of the shutdown.

Seeing the economic devastation COVID has had on other businesses, Racanelli said his company takes the reopening guidelines very seriously.

“Nothing is going to be perfect, but we have to do everything we can. We don’t want to blow it for the other phases,” he said. “We have a lot of responsibility in phase one. All the other phases are looking at us to do the right thing so they can open up.” — Victor Ocasio

On the rails

While the Long Island Rail Road’s ridership is not expected to significantly bounce back until commuters return to their Manhattan jobs, the first phase of the region’s reopening did signal to some commuters a gradual return to normalcy.

East Rockaway commuter Rina Cussen, who has been carpooling to her job in lower Manhattan for the last two months because of her employer’s safety concerns about the transit system, said she planned to return to the rails on Wednesday.

“I told him, ‘We’re done driving. I think we’re going back,’ ” said Cussen, 57, an assistant stockbroker who doesn’t believe much has changed with the reopening of Long Island, other than the mindset of some of its residents. “Maybe just people are less paranoid now … and they’re saying, ‘The hell with this. I’m going back to normal again.’”

The LIRR Wednesday, anticipating a return of some customers, added 105 cars to its operating fleet, increasing capacity by about 15%.

“What we wanted to do is to let riders know, the essential workers that we’re serving, that if they want to ride the railroad, if they need to ride the railroad, that we’re giving a little extra capacity,” Eng said in an interview with WPIX/11. “As commercial retail, construction begins, these folks perhaps have not been riding and we want them to know just on some of their initial days, we want them to know we have that capacity in advance of them.”

The reopening of some businesses was also expected to cause an uptick in riders on Long Island’s public bus systems. But at the Rosa Parks Hempstead Transit Center Wednesday morning, many riders said they’ve been frequenting Nassau’s buses all along.

“It’s been good, especially since it’s free. It’s less crowded,” said Barry Costa, 63, of Hempstead, who rode the bus to and from the county’s Department of Social Services office.

A spokesman for the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE Bus, said that after falling by about two-thirds, ridership has steadily increased by about 10% each week over the last month.

The agency plans to restore full service on June 7 and resume fare collection on June 28. Buses have largely been following a weekend schedule since March, and NICE suspended fares so riders could board from the rear of buses and keep their distance from drivers. — Alfonso A. Castillo

On the roads

While the region’s reopening might have brought many Long Islanders out of their homes and back to work, you would not have known it on the Atlantic Beach Bridge Wednesday morning.

“It wasn’t crazy traffic,” said Toll Supervisor Jane Eversley of the morning rush on the bridge, which connects Atlantic Beach to Lawrence in southwest Nassau. 

Around 11,000 vehicles crossed the bridge each weekday last week on average. In 2019, the average was around 20,000 per weekday.

Eversley said she expects traffic to pick up, pandemic notwithstanding, once the weather warms up.

“As soon as it gets nice out, people come out,” she said. “Even if they’re just driving around in their cars.”

The negligible traffic increase was apparent on roads throughout Long Island Wednesday, according to real-time traffic data and workers who serve Long Island’s legions of car commuters.

511 New York — a State Department of Transportation service that offers information on road conditions — showed mostly open roads across Long Island throughout the day, except for sporadic slowdowns in the Hamptons.

“The New York State Department of Transportation observed a slight increase in traffic on Long Island’s state highways this morning but volumes remained significantly below those measured before the implementation of NY on Pause,” agency spokesman Stephen Canzoneri said.

Rest stop and gas station workers said they hardly noticed a difference in business compared to recent weekdays.

“Nothing special,” said Omar Latif, a cashier at a gas station off the Long Island Expressway in Roslyn Heights. “Past two, three weeks — the same thing.” — Jesse Coburn

Manufacturing the new normal

When the state-ordered lockdown began in March, D’Addario & Company Inc., a Farmingdale firm that makes musical instrument strings, reinvented itself into an “essential business” by repurposing the clear film used in manufacturing drum heads to produce face shields for front-line medical workers.

The initiative, dubbed “Project Excelsior,” is turning into a promising product line for the company's 750 Long Island employees, said company chief executive John D’Addario III.

“We’re producing about 100,000 a week,” he said. “It’s an emerging business segment for us.”

On Wednesday morning, D’Addario restarted production of musical instruments and accessories at its Farmingdale factories, he said.

The company is implementing social distancing by alternating four- and three-day work weeks while running two 10-hour shifts, he said.

Meanwhile, D’Addario said company engineers are working to tweak designs of the clear face shields for varying uses.

“Retail operations need them. Manufacturing needs them,” he said. “It’s becoming the new normal." — Ken Schachter

Farm to wine

Most Long Island farms have operated and even prospered during the coronavirus pandemic as the demand for their fresh fruits and vegetables has increased. But wineries with state-shuttered tasting rooms are not sharing in the prosperity.

Traffic to North Fork farm stands and markets has increased in recent weeks and months as shoppers look to buy not only spring vegetables but also plants and flowers largely cultivated on the East End, said Rob Carpenter, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, which advocates for the industry.

“The impact to the fruit and vegetable growers has been pretty positive because people want fresh, locally grown product,” said Carpenter, noting the local farm community has been “considered essential since day one.”

But not all farms are prospering. Sidor Farms in Mattituck, a potato grower, has seen a 50% drop in the market for its North Fork Potato Chips, because of drop-offs in sales to distributors who market to hotels, cafeterias, airports and other specialty or retail markets shuttered by the pandemic.

“We lost probably half our business because hotels and small markets in the city closed up,” said family co-owner Carol Sidor. “Whether those come back we don’t know.”

Working the fields, and the costs of operating a farm, continue unabated, she added. “Potato planting season has come and gone,” she said. “You can’t plant potatoes too late.”

Wineries with tasting rooms have been particularly hard hit by the COVID 19-related shutdown. Bars and tasting rooms remain closed as do restaurants, which now are considered part of the third phase of reopening slated for July. Curbside sales, direct shipping and even takeout bundles of wine and local food products have allowed some wineries to maintain a level of sales during the shutdowns. But it’s nowhere near where it needs to be as spring winds down and summer looms.

“We’ve lost a tremendous amount of business,” said Anthony Sannino, whose family-owned and operated Sannino Vineyard opened a new tasting room and winery in Cutchogue last year. He wants the state to consider letting wineries with plenty of outdoor seating open up with controls similar to fishing boats.

At family-owned Crescent Duck Farm in Aquebogue, president Doug Corwin had to suspend most processing operations and temporarily lay off more than 40 workers in late March as COVID-19 struck. One of his employees caught the virus, but has since recovered, he said.

Now, after a hiatus precipitated by a drop-off in restaurant sales, he’s planning to restart hatching operations by Friday, with the processing lines opened up after July 4.

It won’t be the same as the pre-COVID days. He’ll install Plexiglas barriers, erect a tent for more break space for workers, and take employee temperatures. He’ll start with a force of around 40 employees, around a third less than before March. And rather than process 20,000 ducks a week, the number will start at around 5,000 a week, Corwin said.

Volume could ramp up as restaurants open and demand increases, but Corwin said he believes it could be a while before eateries are at their former level of traffic.

“It’s going to be one to two years of huge struggle for the restaurant industry and suppliers like me,” he said, adding that there isn’t a huge grocery store market for ducks at retail right now.

Carpenter said he’s hoping the state will offer some guidance for these “agritainment” operations, which offer hay rides, fruit and vegetable picking, and walks through corn mazes. The Sidors operate a sunflower maze in late summer and fall.

 “We’re hoping state will have guidelines for corn mazes, for instance,” he said, but "nobody can predict what’s going to happen,” Carpenter said. — Mark Harrington

Impact on health care

Long Island's reopening may be more psychological than official for health care groups that have been busy throughout the pandemic. But they'll still feel an impact, experts said.

For example, more patients will be willing to visit medical practices for routine care, and that will leave high-risk patients behind, said Dr. Avni Thakore, chief medical officer for Catholic Health Services' medical group, which launched telehealth services to see patients remotely throughout the pandemic. 

But some patients, including the elderly, low-income or non-English-speaking ones, have not been as quick to latch on to remote services, he said. Downloading apps and signing in has proved difficult for some, Thakore said. For others, the cost of the technology needed to use an app has priced them out of remote care.

Now, CHS has launched a new version of its service, hoping it will help reach high-risk patients dealing with diabetes and heart disease in time for phase one. 

"We can send a secure link directly to a caregiver, who can launch the visit directly from their phone or computer," she said. "It's completely secure, and it's much easier for some. I've had sons and daughters tell me that they'll launch the visit, because it's too much for their parents to understand." — David Reich-Hale

Boat captains restart operations

Long Island’s fleet of hundreds of party and charter fishing boats — operating from Huntington to the Captree Boat Basin in Babylon and from Freeport to Montauk — have been approved to reopen, and some are already on the water.

Boat captains have been eager to restart seasonal operations since the lockdown took effect in March. Striped bass season opened April 15; fluke opened May 4 and bluefish season is year-round. Commercial fishing, considered an essential business by the state, wasn't impacted by the lockdown, although the closure of restaurants sharply impacted commercial sales. 

While party and charterboats operate year-round, the season starts in earnest in May around Memorial Day. With the green light this week, many see a chance to salvage the season, although social distancing rules mean limiting passengers.

Neil Delanoy, owner of the Laura Lee partyboat at the Captree Boat Basin in Babylon, said he had his first two trips starting at 7 a.m., fishing for fluke. The boats, which normally carry up to 80 people, have been limited to 29, and all customers must wear masks and buy tickets online to help with potential contract tracing.

“This is a lot better than starting in July,” he said of the prospect of for-hire fishing boats being included in a later phase of reopening. It made sense to open now, he said, because New Jersey and Connecticut boats are already going out.

Dan Buckley, captain and owner of the Orient Star V in Orient Point, said he is planning his first fishing trip for Saturday.

“Everybody is going to be required to wear a mask and we’re limiting the number of passengers on board,” he said. Hand washing and had sanitizer will be readily available and “there will be restrictions on people inside the cabin. For the most part we will have people use common sense.” People not feeling well will be asked to stay home.

While Buckley said he has lost about three weeks of income, he realizes it could have been worse.

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen,” he said. “There was a lot of uncertainty out there.”

— Mark Harrington

Correction: Nassau Inter-County Express plans to resume bus fare collection on June 28. An earlier version of this story misstated the date.

Correction: Mineola small-business owner Cathy Whitley is 57. An earlier version of this story misstated her age.

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