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VFW, American Legion halls struggle in pandemic

American Legion halls and Veterans of Foreign Wars

American Legion halls and Veterans of Foreign Wars financially depend on member dues and using their facilities as rental spaces to stay afloat, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, veterans are concerns about their financial future. Credit: Newsday / John Conrad Williams Jr.; Howard Schnapp

For months, the members of Cub Scout Pack 372, Boy Scout Troop 93 and Venture Crew 2718 have not held their meetings at Franklin Square’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2718.

The doors of Elmont’s American Legion Post 1033 have not been opened to host a baby shower or its members’ own meetings for some time now.

And Patchogue’s VFW Post 2913 hasn’t hosted a party in its 100-person-capacity hall since the state went into lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak in mid-March.

As a result, these revered veterans service organizations, which have long enjoyed being central to their communities’ cultural life, are silent on most days and nights as they struggle financially to stay alive even as they stay true to their mission.

They are key nonprofit organizations serving those who served the country in war and peacetime that have themselves become casualties of the national fight against COVID-19: The social distancing lockdown that is the country’s chief weapon against the predator pandemic has caused heavy collateral damage by sapping rental revenues the groups use to extend a lifeline to veterans in need.

“What’s happened since this COVID-19 has hit is it has squashed our post completely,” said Bill Stegman, first vice commander of the 200-member Elmont American Legion Post 1033 on Hill Avenue, and president of American Legion Riders.

The facility has two function halls, one that holds 70 and another that accommodates 110 people. On most weekends before the pandemic, the halls would be booked solid for months in advance.

But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s directive to halt all but essential businesses, which has lifted since Long Island on Wednesday entered Phase 4 reopening, brought all revenue from rentals to a screeching halt. Still, VFWs and American Legion posts did what they could for vets, from distributing masks and gloves for coronavirus protection to serving as collection points for the delivery of food through charities. 

Even as restrictions have been loosened somewhat, capacity reductions because of social distancing and burdensome cleaning requirements can make it impractical for many of the halls to reopen, the groups said.

Some posts are fielding even more calls for help than ever from troubled, out-of-work veterans.

“We count on that revenue to keep the lights on and to be able to help the veteran community,” said Stegman, a Navy veteran who served from 1985 to 1993 and fought in Operation Desert Storm.

John McManamy, a Navy vet as well as building president and past commander of Franklin Square’s VFW Post 2718, said the post is losing about $7,500 a month in rental revenue. On top of that, expenses have gone up because the building must be cleaned and disinfected when people do begin returning, a cost McManamy estimates at about $1,000 each month.

Stegman and McManamy said their halls are community resources providing a host of services, such as hosting youth groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, as well as providing affordable space for private functions and serving as testing sites for state exams.

Their core work also entails helping the men and women who have served in the armed forces and fought in conflicts dating back to World War II.

“We were busy here seven days a week,” McManamy said. “From seven days a week down to zero — that’s pretty big impact, and we don’t see any relief any time soon. If we were considered a restaurant, we could open at 50% capacity. We’re not a restaurant.”

In fact, said Dave Rogers, commander of the 150-member Patchogue-based VFW Post 2913, veterans service organizations have not been able to take advantage of the trillions of dollars Congress has allocated in coronavirus-related relief.

Many of them operate solely because of the generosity of volunteers — so they could not apply for funds through the Paycheck Protection Program, which has allowed many businesses to continue to provide employees with salaries even though the firms have slowed or stopped operations.

“Many of these VFW’s own their buildings, but they still have to pay insurance ... [and] keep up security and fire suppression systems,” said Rogers, who served in the Army from 1989 to 2005 and saw combat in the first Gulf War and Bosnia-Herzegovina and also was a first responder during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He said the insurance premiums can range from $11,000 to $26,000 a year, describing something of a Catch-22: “If we can’t pay our insurance, we can’t rent our halls.”

The crisis comes as VFWs and American Legion posts lose some of their more youthful members, who provide the energy to run an all-volunteer multiservice center even as the organizations in general become less popular as destinations for family entertainment.

“The VFWs have become less and less of that hangout spot on a Friday night,” Rogers said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if six or seven veteran service organizations on Long Island shut down because of the economic hit from the coronavirus.

Randi Law, a Kansas City-based national spokeswoman for VFW, said the coronavirus crisis has not yet forced any posts to close up shop, despite the massive drop in rentals.

“You have an organization that’s 120 years old,” Rogers said. “A lot of these members are older, unfortunately, and they’re not big into social media. At one point, we were the highlight of these small towns. ... We need to continue to find ways to bring in young members to keep these organizations going."