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.
“It’s going to take awhile,” said Port Jefferson Mayor Margot J. Garant. “I don’t think there’s anything you can do to prepare for this on a local level.”
Here is what business owners, local leaders and chamber officials told Newsday about their fight to survive COVID-19:
PORT JEFFERSON: ‘No one’s walking around town’
Throughout Port Jefferson — a prosperous harborside village that is home to a Hamptons-like summer resort economy and December’s annual holiday Dickens Festival — shopkeepers and officials said the lockdown has caused a sharp drop in business.
Shopkeepers struggle to stay afloat and worry that summer visitors may never arrive this year.
“No one’s walking around town,” said Steve Muñoz, who co-owns with his parents the gourmet food store The Amazing Olive in Port Jefferson and Patchogue. “No one’s traveling. It’s tough.”
Shops are reinventing themselves, with restaurants adding or upgrading takeout and delivery services. The village, chamber of commerce and the business improvement district are paying eateries to deliver meals to staff at St. Charles Hospital and Mather Hospital.
East End Shirt Company
REVENUE: Near $0
“It was looking like a beautiful March,” Mary Joy Pipe said. The owner of the East End Shirt Co. on Mill Creek Road spent the first two weeks of that month readying her store for the spring and summer seasons — and looking ahead to the days when tourists and day-trippers stepping off the ferry would drop into her 41-year-old shop.
But the coronavirus changed everything. Pipe closed the store March 16 after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo imposed strict stay-at-home orders for nonessential businesses.
She furloughed one of her two employees; her other employee, daughter Keira, works on the shop’s website but is no longer paid.
Pipe now runs the store online, but said her revenue is “near zero.”
“With those closures, certainly everything stopped,” said Pipe, president of the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce. “When your doors are closed, your doors are closed.”
Roger’s Frigate ice cream shop
“The one thing that’s keeping the lights on, being all the nonessentials are shut down, the restaurants are hanging in there,” said Roger Rutherford, general manager of Roger’s Frigate, an ice cream shop. The business is closed and its 24 employees are on furlough.
Many business owners are seeking federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, said Kathleen M. Taveira, vice president of the Port Jefferson branch of BNB Bank, which administers the Small Business Administration program. She said in an email that most Port Jefferson stores should survive.
But some businesses are leery of the loans, saying they fear having to eventually repay them with interest. “It’s one step forward and two steps back in the long run,” Muñoz said.
There are merchants who are jump-starting fledgling online services, becoming mini-Amazons to keep their cash registers ringing. The future, however, is cloudy, even on sunny spring afternoons that once were a harbinger of lucrative summer days.
“A 60-, 65-degree day is perfect for us,” Rutherford said. “It really hurts to see those beautiful days go by without being able to capitalize on them.”
ROCKVILLE CENTRE: ‘It’s frustrating for everyone’
Rockville Centre officials thought they had solved many of the village’s economic struggles about two years ago with the opening of the Avalon Bay II apartment complex. The 165-unit complex brought new residents to a downtown that had seen better days, and once empty sidewalks started to bustle with foot traffic.
“Our streets [were] ... full seven days and seven nights a week, [with people] walking, eating and shopping,” said Mayor Francis X. Murray.
But with the coronavirus forcing people to stay indoors, about half the village’s restaurants are shuttered.
“It’s terrible. Our business owners are for the most part closed down,” Murray said. “It’s frustrating for everyone.”
Village officials and business leaders are banding together to deliver meals to local hospitals and sanitation workers. That helps bring some business to restaurants, Murray said. But the long-term prognosis is unclear, and many shopkeepers are not sure what comes next.
Art Flower & Gift Shoppe
Keith Linsalata, owner of the Art Flower & Gift Shoppe on North Village Avenue, saw orders withdrawn as weddings, Easter services, confirmations and other spring events were canceled. He said he furloughed his staff of seven and applied for Paycheck Protection Program loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
But he said he is not sure how long he can hold out waiting for the economy to bounce back.
“Not that much longer,” Linsalata said. “I want to be a good guy. I want to do the right thing. The PPP is OK, but it’s not the cure-all. ... There’s only so long that a small business can survive without any money coming in.”
REVENUE: DOWN 60%-70%
At Paradiso restaurant on North Village Avenue, owner Benny LoManto said business is down 60% to 70%, even with takeout orders. He laid off six or seven workers and opens the Italian restaurant only during dinner hours.
“It’s not what business should be,” LoManto said. “If we don’t get that help that the government is going to give us, we’re not going to make it.”
PATCHOGUE: ‘We’re trying to keep our head above water’
Two months ago, Patchogue officials were fretting about parking shortages caused by the village’s burgeoning bar and restaurant scene. The once-moribund lace mill town has become a model of downtown rejuvenation in the past decade, adding hundreds of new apartments and dozens of bars, bistros and retail shops.
But on a recent Saturday night, after stay-at-home measures forced taverns and bistros to close their doors to patrons, Mayor Paul Pontieri walked the streets of a virtually empty downtown.
“I felt like it was 1999 again,” he said. “There was nothing going on.”
About half of Patchogue’s 42 bars and eateries are doing takeout and deliveries, with some holding virtual happy hours, but many businesses have closed their doors for now. Dozens of employees have been laid off or furloughed, and sales are down drastically at the businesses that remain open.
“Everybody’s struggling,” said Jim Sarno, owner of Budget Buy and Sell, a pawnshop that has stayed open. He has not laid off staff, but has applied for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to compensate for what he called “big-time” losses.
“Hopefully, we don’t need [the loan], but I want to make sure it’s available in case we need it,” Sarno said.
Flo’s Luncheonette closed its Patchogue location and opened its flagship summer shack in Blue Point two months early. Though the temperatures have been a bit chilly, the nearly century-old eatery is getting business from dog walkers and early season visitors to Corey Beach.
“We had a feeling this was better than being in Patchogue and waiting for the phone to ring,” co-owner Connor Vigliotti said.
The bar and eatery are open for takeout and deliveries, but sales in Blue Point are down 60% to 70% compared to normal activity there, Vigliotti said. He kept the 12 staff he believed most needed to continue getting a paycheck; the rest were laid off.
“We’ve definitely taken a loss,” he said. “It would be very hard to capture that business again …. We’re trying to keep our head above water.”
Vigliotti said he applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan in case he needs it. And he's hoping for warmer weather to come soon, followed by a typically hot Long Island summer to draw the beach crowd.
“We’re just eking by,” Vigliotti said. “If this does continue through April and further into May, it’s going to be, what kind of expenses come down the pipeline that we can and cannot take.”
Village Idiot Pub
REVENUE: Down about 50%
Patchogue’s bar and restaurant owners have banded together to help each other, said John Sarno, owner of Village Idiot Pub. Besides collecting food for staff at Long Island Community Hospital in East Patchogue and Stony Brook University Hospital, they’ve organized virtual bar tours to draw attention to the village’s taverns and bistros.
Orders placed via online services such as DoorDash and Grubhub bring in some takeout and delivery business — especially on Saturday nights, when business perks up to Super Bowl Sunday levels, Sarno said.
But it’s not the same as running a fully functioning bar, and Sarno said he finds himself competing with supermarkets and convenience stores for beer sales. Overall revenues are down about 50%, and he has laid off most staff, including bartenders.
“It’s overwhelming at times, and at the same time you appreciate how great your employees are,” Sarno said.
Despite the pandemic, proprietors insist they will survive. They said a joint effort to bring meals to staff at area hospitals has brought some income to financially strapped restaurants — and revived the village’s community spirit.
“You have to adapt with the times,” said Eric Rifkin, owner of Bobbique restaurant on West Main Street. “We are a forward-thinking group here and we are built for takeout.”
The village and Chamber of Commerce raised $30,000 to help restaurants donate food to hospital staff. Pontieri said the village is not enforcing parking rules to bring more people downtown. He’s optimistic business will bounce back, but said the pandemic should force shops to save for a rainy day.
Rifkin and other store owners said they will work hard to save their businesses — and vowed not to go down without a fight.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to make it through,” he said. “We’re tough, we’re resilient. We know how to cook. We’ll get through this.”
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