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COVID-19 takes a bite out of pet care industry and livelihoods

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a strain on the Long Island pet care industry.  Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Nowadays, Susan Mirman usually takes three walks: one with Amber, 4, one with Fergie, 12 — her yellow Labradors — and the third one alone.

“I feel great when I’m with the dogs,” said Mirman, 49, of Commack. Plus, “I need the exercise. There’s only so many times I can walk around the kitchen.”

As the coronavirus outbreak worsens, walking a dog has become one of the remaining pleasures for many. The new reality of millions of Long Islanders staying at home, however, also meant pet owners like Mirman no longer need the service of dog walkers or day care centers, a trend that could devastate small businesses that were once booming.

Pet sitter Beth Goldin, of Huntington, used to make at least a dozen home visits on a regular day. She was so busy that, at one point, she didn’t take in any new clients.

COVID-19 has changed it all.

Goldin’s clients dropped by more than half. Cancellations came one after another. This summer, typically her busiest season, is on track to be her slowest ever.

Some of her clients continue to let her work or pay her a portion of the fee without the work. She said she is managing — barely — to pay the bills, and she worries about others in her trade.

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“A lot of pet sitters work much more with traveling clients,” said Goldin, who is in her 60s. “For those people, they’ve lost pretty much everything.”

Since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued a directive ordering nonessential businesses to close on March 22, Hope Garlick has laid off her 12 staff members and shuttered her dog training and day care business in Westbury.

In the past couple of weeks, Garlick, 58, of Levittown, has been mourning the loss of her livelihood.

“It’s like you are grieving the death of your business. Of what you built here. Of what you did every day,” she said. “You don’t really know what’s on the other side.”

Before the outbreak began, she said her business was thriving.

“Some days, it was hard to keep up” Garlick said. “Some days, we had a waiting list. To go from that to this is very disheartening.”

From 2014 to 2019, the U.S. pet care industry grew at an annualized rate of 6%, to reach $9 billion in revenue last year, according to an IBISWorld report published last June. It includes more than 123,000 pet sitting, boarding and grooming businesses that employ approximately 218,000 workers, according to the IBISWorld report.

Before the pandemic hit, the industry was recession-proof, with pet ownership remaining solid even during economic downturns.

But as Americans stop traveling and hunker down at home, pet care businesses, especially those providing boarding services, will take the hardest, short-term blow, according to a March report by Maryland-based market research firm Packaged Facts.

Last week, Marc Rosenzweig, the owner of Willow Pet Hotel in Deer Park, had a dozen animals in house instead of the 85 pets he was expecting a week before Easter.

“There’s the math right there,” Rosenzweig said. “Seventy-plus dogs on an average volume of, let’s say, $50 a day. I’m going to lose that volume … until this is over.”

Rosenzweig said he has already dipped into his reserve fund to cover expenses and applied for coronavirus disaster loans. As of Wednesday, Rosenzweig said he hadn’t heard back from the U.S. Small Business Administration other than the initial confirmation of receipt of his application and does not know whether he can make payroll this week. He said he is trying to retain his 12 regular employees.

The stress of carrying a family business is weighing on Rosenzweig, 55. His father, Jack, bought the business in 1969 from Carl Coleman, who established it in 1939, and he took it over in 1988.

“I’m sucking wind here, and I don’t see any end in sight,” Rosenzweig said. “I’m still nervous that I don’t know if we are going to make it. A 50-year-old-plus family business who’s made it through all kinds of craziness.”

As the industry braces for further loss, some view the economic recovery efforts with optimism.

“I definitely think that our industry will come back up maybe a litter faster than some other industries,” said Nancy Hassel, of Babylon, founder and president of American Pet Professionals, a networking group.

As pet adoptions surged during the outbreak, Hassel, 47, said the need will continue and businesses will most likely go back to normal or be even busier.

But pet sitter Nicole Cottone, of Huntington, said she isn’t sure her one-woman business (with some help from her husband) will survive the financial blow when the dust settles.

“I know this will be over soon, and hopefully all of us can go back to some type of normalcy,” said Cottone, 41. When it’s time for people to travel again, “hopefully half of us [pet sitters] are still around for them.”

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