Authors Posts by Kyle Barr

Kyle Barr


Local representatives gathered at the Lawrence Aviation property last year to identify where a rail yard could be built. Photo from state Sen. Anthony Palumbo’s office

Discussions have dragged on and on, and even as years turned to decades the dream of an electrified northern line of the Long Island Rail Road has shuddered along, like a train limping forward on little to no steam.

Though local leaders now say the time is ripe. With state reps championing the cause in Albany, local leaders are holding up a plum location for the necessary rail yard: Lawrence Aviation.

The former site of Lawrence Aviation Industries. File photo

The 126-acre superfund site in Port Jefferson Station has sat vacant since 2000, after the airplane parts company was accused of leaching chemicals into the ground. Ground cleanup was completed in 2009, and asbestos was removed from some of the buildings in 2015, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Various sources confirmed that late last year, local civic leaders as well as representatives from Brookhaven, Smithtown and Huntington townships, joined Suffolk County and state leaders on the superfund site property to identify where such a rail yard could be built. The latest update on the property by the EPA, dated October 2021, stated that the site consists of 10 buildings, a drum crushing site, and a vacant lagoon and woods.

Yet officials across both parties have long supported the project, which has been talked about for over four decades. It’s a project the environmental and economics-minded people have been on board with. Both previous state Sens. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and John Flanagan (R-East Northport) were proponents, and many electeds like Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) have long called on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to move the project forward.

What’s different now? Charlie Lefkowitz, president of Three Village Chamber of Commerce, said the most recent change in state leadership has resulted in a “newfound focus” on electrification. He agreed that Lawrence Aviation, which is tucked far enough away from residential houses to be not detrimental to homeowners, would be an optimal place for a yard.

The chamber leader also cited how much of a beneficial impact electrifying the line would have on the surrounding economy, especially with how Stony Brook students can use the train to traverse to hotspots like Port Jefferson or Huntington villages.

“Creating viable, sustainable public transportation really has to be looked at hard here,” Lefkowitz said.

In a written statement, state Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) further put his support behind the project.

“There is broad and bipartisan support to turn the site into a new rail yard to provide greater service to the region,” he wrote. “It is also a crucial component in the plan to electrify the Port Jefferson line. With the state and federal government investing billions of dollars in infrastructure there is no excuse not to get these projects completed now.”

“Creating viable, sustainable public transportation really has to be looked at hard here.”

— Charlie Lefkowitz

Suffolk County officials said they have had this property in mind for civic development since at least 2015. Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, known as the county’s water quality czar, said that there’s a current $860,000 annual cost to taxpayers due to a number of liens on the property, and the federal government is also looking to make up costs on the $150 million cleanup.

The county has already received legislative approval to settle with all the lien claimants, and execution on those settlements will likely happen in the next six to eight weeks, according to the deputy county executive.

“We have developed a cooperative working relationship with the state and federal governments to process those liens,” Scully said during a Zoom interview.

The Suffolk County Landbank put out a request for proposal in July of last year for companies to develop the Lawrence Aviation site. Early concepts of the site detail a portion of the property zoned for light industrial, while another section on the eastern end will be preserved as open space. Notably, the north end of the property conceptualizes an MTA railyard. The study also mentions potential plans to reroute the train tracks and potentially moving the Port Jefferson train station onto the Lawrence Aviation site as well, which would eliminate the crossing on Route 112.

Sarah Lansdale, president of the landbank and the county’s planning and environment director, said that and other concepts are on the table.

She confirmed the county received one bid back on the RFP for a solar farm on the industrial part of the property, though she did not offer further details as negotiations are ongoing.

Waiting on the MTA

With those claims out of the way, all that’s left is for the MTA to make a decision regarding electrification, but the transportation entity has been notoriously tight-lipped regarding this and other projects. The MTA included $4 million in their five-year 2015-19 capital plan to pay for a feasibility study on electrification of the Port Jefferson Branch, and while the transportation entity confirmed the study is in motion, there is no word on when it will be completed.

Dave Steckel, a spokesperson for the MTA, said in a statement that a feasibility study is one “among a variety of transit proposals throughout the region” and that “the authority will assess the study and other regional proposals using consistent metrics — such as cost, ridership, etc. — so that they can be comparatively evaluated.”

The analysis will also be used in MTA’s 20-year needs assessment, which is due next year.

That’s not to say the project is unknown to transportation officials. Kevin Law, past president of the Long Island Association who just recently stepped down from the MTA board, offered his support to two Island-based projects, according to Newsday. One was to finish the Yaphank station and the other to finish Port Jeff line electrification. Law is moving on to be the new director of Empire State Development.

Anthony Figliola, a civic leader in the Three Village area who is running for the New York District 1 congressional seat on the Republican ticket, said that he has talked to railroad officials who have confirmed the feasibility study is ongoing, though he and other civic leaders have not seen it yet. He added he’s spoken to the NYS Senate transportation committee leader, and that the local state electeds are on board.

“We’re on the radar as far as Albany is concerned,” Figliola said. “These are big capital projects that take a lot of time and planning. So while you know, while it may not happen right now, we need to start planning for this for the future, because COVID will be over, and life will get back to normal.”

Some transportation advocates say the silence is a bad sign. Larry Penner, a self-described transportation historian and writer from Great Neck, spent 31 years in the U.S. Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. In a phone interview, he said riders should not expect anything on electrification until 2034, at least.

“We’re on the radar as far as Albany is concerned.”

— Anthony Figliol

He pointed to the Feb. 8 public hearing from the MTA which did not include mention of Port Jeff electrification. He also mentioned that there’s no money for the project in the MTA’s 2020-24 five-year capital plan. After the feasibility study is released, the MTA will then need to do the EPA’s environmental review process, which will allow for further FTA funding. The same amount of lead up time to acquiring a rail yard is likely to be the same.

“It’s a package deal,” Penner said. “You can’t build a storage without electrification and Federal Transit Administration funding. With this requirement that you fund a transportation improvement project, it has to go to beneficial use. So you couldn’t build a yard and have it sit there for 15 years.”

Scully said they have been in communication with MTA board members, but emphasized that timing is important for the MTA to start making moves on both electrification and Lawrence Aviation. Lansdale said the county is tasked with disposing all parts of the property, and without an agreement they may have to move on.

But another piece of the puzzle remains whether riders will return to the LIRR, especially as the pandemic continues. Many workers have realized the benefits of working from home, and many city offices remain in remote work. Though it had increased marginally in October of last year, weekday ridership on the LIRR continues to be about 50% of what it was in 2019, before the pandemic.

Penner said that problem likely overshadows any attempt to add more services on existing lines. The existing MTA projects like the ongoing $11.2 billion East Side Access to Grand Central Station promised tens of thousands of new riders when originally proposed, but with the ongoing pandemic he remains skeptical. “You want to protect and maintain the existing service before you expand service,” the transportation historian said.

Still, locals like Lefkowitz and Figliola remain optimistic about ridership bouncing back.

“As a New Yorker who lived through tragedies like 9/11 and others, I think there will be people going back from the trains,” Lefkowitz said. “I do believe that at some point, these things will get back to whatever the next transition of our future is, but I believe people will be riding the trains.”

Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic President Sal Pitti protests a potential cell tower along Canal Road in 2019. File photo by Kyle Barr

If there’s a man around town, then that man’s more than likely to be Sal Pitti.

Whether he’s rolling up in his car to check on any reported problems, meeting with developers planning to build up in the Port Jeff Station area, running civic gatherings or attending town meetings focused on residential issues, it’s not hard to find the shaved head and thick, salt and pepper beard as the marked signs of his presence. 

Pitti has been vice president and now president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association over the past several years, and in that time has become a staple of community activism for the two hamlets. The retired ex-NYPD officer can be seen throughout the community, driving around with his current VP and friend Ed Garboski, as they check in on any supposed disturbances and the sites of any ongoing development.

Garboski said he was first introduced to Pitti through Joe Rella, the beloved former superintendent of the Comsewogue School District. Pitti was involved with the school’s Drug Prevention Coalition, and Rella asked Garboski to get involved. After talking for a good while, the two decided they should merge the coalition with the civic, and Pitti became an integral part of the PJS/T organization.

Since then, he’s become a major member of multiple committees, including Brookhaven Town’s Quality of Life Task Force and Suffolk County’s drug task force, for which Garboski said Pitti was instrumental in working with Suffolk County Police Department officials to close down several known drug houses in the community.

“He’s not going to give you lip service, and if there’s a problem he’s going to go after it,” the current civic VP said. “He’s committed to this community, whether that’s drugs or working on the homelessness issue. He’s got a lot of empathy for them. It’s not, ‘Let’s just get rid of them,’ it’s, ‘Let’s find out how we can help them.

Charlie McAteer, the civic’s corresponding secretary and previous Person of the Year recipient, has known Pitti for close to a decade. McAteer first interacted with Pitti through his stewardship of the Setauket-Port Jefferson Station Greenway Trail, when he was helping to clean up the trail and the parking lot on Route 112 that marks a trail end. Over the years, both Pitti’s and Garboski’s activism drew McAteer into the civic more and more.

Sal Pitti with other members of the PJS/Terryville Civic discuss ideas for the Terryville Road community garden. File photo by Kyle Barr

McAteer said Pitti was instrumental in multiple recent community projects, including the revitalization of the community garden on Route 112, keeping on top of the Lawrence Aviation property with the Suffolk County Landbank, and more recently working with Brookhaven Town to secure the historical Terryville Union Hall under civic stewardship after the local historical society folded in 2019. McAteer said they are now talking with the town about renovating the property to bring it back to its original 1800s-era look.

Pitti “is really utilizing his retirement time to help the community,” McAteer said. “Having been a New York City police officer, now retired, he has such a repertoire. He puts people at ease, that way they can talk to him. And he will then be able to then convey any problems they have to the powers that be.” 

Frank Gibbons, a longtime civic member and all-around expert about the area’s traffic history and issues, said Pitti is always willing to help anyone in the community.

“If anybody needs his time for anything, then he’s there,” Gibbons said. “You don’t have to ask him twice. Hell, most of the time you don’t have to ask him, he’s asking us, saying ‘Hey, will you come join us?’ Whether it’s cleaning up around the chamber of commerce train car, or cleaning up all the walking paths over to Stony Brook.”

Others who have known Pitti for a shorter time than Garboski and McAteer said his drive to see good work done is striking.

Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook), who is finishing up his first year as Brookhaven Town councilmember, said he has worked closely with Pitti ever since he came into office. 

“Soon after I took office, I met with Sal and the board of the civic and we had a frank discussion about the community’s needs, wishes, challenges and opportunities,” Kornreich said over email. “I found Sal’s insight and level of connectedness to his community to be very inspiring. For no reason other than the betterment of his community, Sal has worked hard for many years, investing time, money and energy. One can’t help but be inspired to support his efforts.” 

Andrew Harris, a special-needs teacher at Comsewogue High School and the school liaison with the civic, said Pitti and the other civic leaders are honestly concerned that their community remains a nice place to live, for all its residents.

“He’s a big dude, he’s an ex-cop, he looks like a pretty tough guy, you know?” said Harris, who is also a previous Person of the Year recipient. “But really, he’s the kindest, nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, personalitywise. The bottom line is he just volunteers his time for others.”

Leigh Wixson (right) with her colleagues, Monica Passarelle and Christina Almeida, from the Smithtown Animal Shelter. Photo from Town of Smithtown

With the popularity that pets and other animals already feature on social media, one wouldn’t be blamed to think it’s a cinch to get folks into local municipal animal shelters and find those longing dogs and cats a forever home. 

Yet, any shelter worker will tell you it remains an intense challenge to help animals, whether to find new owners or to live safely in Long Island’s dense suburban landscape. To many who work with or in the Smithtown Animal Shelter and Adoption Center, director Leigh Wixson has proved to be a steadfast and extremely compassionate head of the shelter, one who is open to any suggestion and recourse to help those furry companions within the Town of Smithtown.

Nicole Garguilo, public information officer for the town, has worked intimately with Wixson since the director came into the job in 2019. Together, they have set up multiple blasts on social media to promote the animals currently inhabiting the shelter. Beyond the usual social blasts profiling those animals waiting for adoption, Wixson and her crew have started to get especially creative.

“I always laugh because I feel like I torture Wixson and the others at the shelter with my ideas,” Garguilo said, mentioning their recent video where they used shelter dogs to recreate famous movie scenes from “Lady and the Tramp” and Rin Tin Tin-featured adventures. The shelter recently posted a video of their hotdog challenge on TikTok, where shelter dogs had to catch in their mouths small pieces of hot dogs thrown to them. Another video featured a buck trapped in a fence during rutting season, and as town animal control officers pried it loose, Jim Carrey’s appropriate line from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” played in the background: “All right, you’re a reindeer. Here’s your motivation: Your name is Rudolph.”

Beyond that, those who constantly work with the shelter said with Wixson’s kind, open and funny demeanor, she has a knack for using social media in a way that both informs and promotes the shelter.

“She is very, very good at using video, which can be cute, so it grabs the attention of people on social media, but they also learn something,” Garguilo said. “When they learn something, and when they see that video, they realize, ‘Oh, if I have that situation, I can call the shelter, they’ll help me.’ And she’s been very successful in getting our social media pages to go viral.”

The animal shelter has had leadership problems over the years. Former director George Beatty resigned in 2015 after some 30 years at the helm, and a shelter advisory council of volunteer residents designed to offer recommendations to the town on shelter operations quit shortly after it was created that same year. Susan Hansen, Beatty’s replacement, was suspended from the shelter director’s position in 2017, and the town’s Department of Public Safety temporarily took over the shelter’s reins. 

But Wixson’s tenure has catapulted the shelter ahead of its contemporaries, according to those people who have worked intimately with her. Different folks have pointed to her deep knowledge base as well as her constant attentive attitude to those animals inhabiting the shelter, often going above and beyond what’s usually expected of a director.

Charmaine DeRosa, a longtime animal advocate from St. James, said that of all the multitudes of shelters across the Island she works with, the shelter headed by Wixson is the best in terms of their openness and care for the animals.

“A lot of people in the community are more willing and more open to donating to the shelter, and they think about the shelter a lot more,” DeRosa said. Wixson and her staff “are very open, and the animal adoptions are handled so quickly and nicely.”

The shelter also performs many other services beyond adoption. In 2018, the town netted a $168,000 grant from New York State to create a new trap, neuter and release program to try and handle the stray dog and cat populations — otherwise known by animal activists as community dogs or cats — while treating them for diseases or parasites. Garguilo said Wixson’s experience in the private sector was incredibly helpful for getting the program off the ground. Instead of building a separate building, as the town originally planned, Wixson suggested using multiple pod trailers, each with their own heating and ventilation. The trailers help keep the stray animals away from the general population to help them acclimate if they’re to join the shelter.

The shelter’s animal control arm has also taken off on social media. Denise Vibal, an animal control officer at the shelter, can be seen in multiple videos attending to deer during rutting season or explaining what to do when people find injured animals on their property. She said Wixson has been a “fantastic boss” and attentive leader, adding that she’s been in the animal world for a long time and understands the struggles and remedies in this line of work.

“Most supervisors, they wouldn’t know every cat’s name, every dog’s name, every quirk, every this or that,” Vibal said. “So, she actually takes the time to get to know them, to have them in her office, take them for a walk, or have a relationship with a really tough animal who’s had a rough life.”

“In the past, we were told not to post anything, but the community likes to see wildlife and rescues, and things like that,” Vibal added. “And I think it’s great for the community morale. So Wixson has been very positive about posting different things, not only for the animals but what we do for the community.”

The shelter has faced other ongoing issues due to the pandemic. Vibal said that as more people go back to work, the shelter has seen a rash of pet abandonment, especially those animals folks acquired during 2020 that they claim they don’t have the time to take care of anymore. Though it is a felony to abandon a pet, those in the know said the shelter has worked hard to help any animal in need.

“The fact that she’s been able to keep the morale up, especially right now, and really take care of her employees, as well as love these animals unconditionally, is really very special,” Garguilo said.

Below, Linda Parlante presents Abel Fernandez with a certificate congratulating him on his nomination of Person of the Year at Mount Sinai High School, Dec. 23. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Think of all the little things that make or break your day. 

Were you greeted by a kind man when you came to work that day? Did someone tell you a joke that made you laugh while you whiled away the hours stuck at a desk? Did somebody help you move those boxes when you threw out your back earlier that week? Did somebody help you change your car tire after you got a flat when coming out of the parking lot? 

Abel Fernandez, lead custodian at Mount Sinai High School, is the man who makes people’s days, constantly, day after day, month after month, school year after school year. He’s a man who proves that small acts of kindness add up to a mountain of giving, and that is why Fernandez is named a TBR News Media Person of the Year for 2021.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Linda Parlante, the district secretary to the facilities director, said Fernandez “spends countless hours making sure his building is safe for the students.” Even as a custodian, he makes his love for the school and community known through every action he takes, whether it’s by attending many of the school functions, including being the first to volunteer during the annual Battle of the Educators faculty basketball game, rolling out the red carpet during prom, or always being there to purchase a cupcake or cookie at school bake sales. 

Scott Reh, the district director of buildings and grounds, said all the students know him for constantly being there for them.

“The kids love him,” Reh said. “He’s a fixture in the school and in students’ daily routines. The kids see him, and he interacts with them in a positive manner. He’s a role model.”

Fernandez also serves as the Spanish language interpreter for the district, and even there he goes above and beyond. He’s been known to go to students parents’ homes alongside high school principal, Peter Pramataris, to communicate with them directly about what’s happening in a student’s life or how they can participate in district elections. Reh said that Fernandez has a way about him that “when he [talks to students and parents], it’s in a manner in which they feel comfortable. He’s a soothing presence.”

Nothing takes away Fernandez’s attention from his school work, not even recent personal tragedy. After his brother was involved in a severe car accident, Parlante said the lead custodian has been attending to his brother’s needs, driving him back and forth from the hospital, as well as managing his brother’s barbershop. Even with all this extra work, Mount Sinai school officials said Fernandez has never missed a beat in the district, and that he still comes to work wanting to give 100% of his care to the student body and school grounds.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

“He has been the first on scene for accidents on district property as well as the first in line when an issue arises that needs security,” Parlante said. “If anyone in the building ever needs anything, whether it be boxes moved, a car jumped, a tire changed or help at their house, he is always available and never says ‘no.’ He has created lifelong friends from his work here and everyone would agree that Abel would give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it.”

Pramataris has known Fernandez for well over a decade, having especially come to rely on him since he moved up from middle school principal to high school after the untimely passing of former principal Rob Grable in 2019. Pramataris said Grable had elevated Fernandez to the head custodian position “just because he also saw the potential in him.”

Fernandez is in charge of four custodians at the high school, and the principal said he always leads by example and “he’s always the first one to climb the ladder and do whatever needs to be done.” 

What gives Fernandez his can-do attitude? Pramataris said it’s likely his familial bonds that, growing up, taught him the value of hard work. His mother, Angela, is a custodian for the Comsewogue School District.

“His personality is just pleasant, and as someone who’s been knocked down a few times, he could have probably given up, but it’s the last thing that he’ll do,” Pramataris said. “He’s just the type of guy that you want to help and support, and he does the same for you.”

Taking a solo backpacking tour through Europe proves the scars of COVID-19 are deep

Zurich, Switzerland, along the river Limmat. Photo by Kyle Barr

This is part two of a two part series.

The Netherlands and Denmark

In Amsterdam, the classic Bulldog hostel, just one part of the company known for its pervasive marijuana products, was practically full to the brim compared to other hostels along my route. And still, people kept to their little groups, barely interacting with each other even in the spacious bar area. Rosie, a young woman I met in Amsterdam and fellow American traveler from Detroit, talked of her own lonely experiences after she left friends in Istanbul, Turkey, to travel up to Dutch country.

attendees during a pared-down August pride celebration in Amsterdam. Photo by Kyle Barr

There are ways to mitigate the loneliness. Apps like CouchSurfing have the capacity for travelers to create hangouts. It’s how I managed to meet a group of international travelers all shut together in a tiny apartment in Amsterdam’s canal district for a house party/barbecue, where alcohol and marijuana loosened enough tongues to break through the concerns of pandemic life. Though that’s easier for young people, many of whom crowded along the rain-slick streets just outside the Amsterdam Centraal train station for a slimmed down version of Pride month festivities. None were wearing masks.

There are certainly places that seem to be trying to capture more of what prepandemic life was like. In Amsterdam and Denmark, masks are only worn in places where one can’t stay 1.5 meters away from people. Of course, it’s a policy that is rarely if ever enforced, despite COVID cases peaking to a new high for the Netherlands in mid-July. Despite what Dutch officials have recently said about limiting international travelers who come to revel in the famous smoke-filled streets of the city center, the travelers there are undaunted.


The international travel industry grew to new heights up until just before the pandemic, but now many towns, cities and countries are starting to consider whether the general wealth that tourists bring to their homes is worth what they lose in a sense of place and community. The outdoor shopping malls of a city like Bern, Switzerland, are no longer flooded with travelers, and more locals can take the time to walk past the old town and up the hill to the Bern Rosengarten to enjoy a beer and the cool afternoon air with friends and family.

While in Switzerland I stayed with a native Swiss man named Pascal for two nights in his home, just a 20-minute train ride from Zurich. That city, so well known throughout the world as a tourist hotspot, no longer sees the crowds it once did. The surrounding mountains are trekked by locals, with more mountain goats than people. The way Pascal kindly greeted his fellows on the slopes of the Etzel mountain, located on the southern end of Lake Zurich, it seemed that a strong sense of polite community was still alive, and better exemplified away from the international crowds of a national center like Geneva or in the resort town of Zermatt, lingering under the craggy gaze of the Matterhorn.

The Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland seen from high above. Photo by Kyle Barr

Iceland and back home

On the final leg of my trip into Iceland, I reconnected with my brother. It was the first time I met somebody I knew in seven weeks. We didn’t rent a car and were forced to take guided tours, one running down the brilliant length of the country’s south coast. The other was a tour of the Golden Circle to massive sites around the center of the country. We were the only two people in a van with our tour guide. The other people scheduled for the tour bailed last minute and, instead of canceling, the tour operator still offered us our ride. The pandemic had been hard on tour guides. They are making less than 50% what they had been doing just two years ago. Iceland’s economy, and so many other countries in Europe, relies on tourism. In 2019, over 15% of the workforce in Iceland was in the tourism industry. Many European countries accounted for close to 10% of their total gross domestic product. Some countries, like Greece, accounted for about 20% of their GDP. What will they do if travelers do not show up at the rates they once did in the years to come?

These are big questions and impossible for one person to answer. Instead, as time moves on and the memories start to congeal in my brain, I’m left with an impression: Thousands of people laying under verdigris-covered statues built in a time centuries before, the uncertainty, the questions, sitting amid millions of lives trying to be lived day-to-day, wanting to see a future in which all can take one collective breath.

And like us back in the States, we’re still wanting and we’re still waiting.

Kyle Barr is a freelancer writer and the former editor of The Port Times Record, The Village Beacon Record and The Times of Middle Country.


Taking a solo backpacking tour through Europe proves the scars of COVID-19 are deep

French citizens in Marseille protest the country’s mandate of proof of vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test. Photo by Kyle Barr
Taking a solo backpacking tour through Europe proves the scars of COVID-19 are deep

By Kyle Barr


Kyle Barr

There was a young man in Toulouse, France, one of only two people in a hostel dorm room, the other being me. We were two in a room meant to facilitate 15. A Parisian traveler, he had taken trains and buses down to Toulouse, named the Pink City (Ville Rose) for its famous blush-red brick. We had a good sight of the street and that colored stone out of the window we shared between our beds.

“I want to see more of my country while I can,” he told me during that cool, wet night in July. He also told me he still hadn’t gotten a vaccine for COVID-19. I had, but I was sleeping just 3 feet away from him.

This should be a normal interaction for travelers through Europe but, in a space like that, the conversation inevitably moves toward the pandemic. He tells me he did not know why he hesitated to get the vaccine. It could have been nerves. It could be the kind of anti-authoritarian impulses that us Americans know only too well. He, along with so many French citizens, have railed against the French President Emmanuel Macron for their mandated proof of a vaccine or negative COVID test for everything from cafés to concerts.

On July 14, Bastille Day, protests rolled out from France’s cities. I watched one in Marseille make its way from the old docks up to the local municipal building. The protesters were shouting “Liberté!” while holding signs reading, “Mon corps m’appartient!” meaning “My body belongs to me!”

The Monument to the Girondins in Bourdeaux. Photo by Kyle Barr

But the young Parisian man said that, despite his anger, it could actually change his mind.

“Maybe this will finally make me get the vaccine,” he told me.

Reuters’ data show an estimated 73% of France’s population has been vaccinated. That compares to an approximate 59% in the U.S. I wonder if that young man I met in Toulouse ever got his shot, but we were traveling in opposite directions, and I don’t think I’ll ever know.

There’s only one time that something can be done for the first time. So doing a European backpacking trip is one thing — an enormous thing to do as a novice. Doing it during a once-in-a-century pandemic is another thing entirely.

This past summer I made a very sudden decision to take a two-month backpacking trip through several countries in western Europe, starting June 23 and ending Aug. 18. Beginning in France, I went south to Basque country in Spain, back into France before going into Switzerland, then Germany, the Netherlands, then to Denmark before a quick flight over to Iceland.

My trip began on the very edge of when we all thought the pandemic would subside, just after many European countries started opening their doors to overseas travelers. My trip coincidentally ended just after those same nations started to roll back those open-armed policies. France instituted a COVID passport system just weeks after I left, and it is still only really available to French citizens, meaning that it would be nearly impossible to do half of what I could do just a few months before. Other European countries have instituted new restrictions and lockdowns. It means there was one small three-month period, one golden time slate when the classic Euro tour was still possible. That’s gone now.

Currently, rules are in flux, and Americans may find that restrictions can change between the time they book a trip and their departure dates. Unvaccinated U.S. passengers especially need to keep on top of all the changing regulations.

The statue of Ludwig I, Koenig von Bayern, King of Bavaria in Munich. Photo by Kyle Barr

I wonder now if things will ever return to that golden age of pandemic-era travel and, at the same time, whether we ever should go back. Because even during this perfect period when summer travel was (mostly) possible if one carried a vaccine card tucked inside a passport, adventuring alone in pandemic-scarred lands is not as it once was. It may never be the same again.


I stayed in a total of 17 hostels, one tiny hotel, two Airbnbs and two stays at kindly people’s homes. During my visit to Hamburg, Germany, I chatted up the hostel staff and heard, like most hostels along my route, they were doing barely 30 to 40% of what they had done in 2019. Backpacking alone relies on one’s ability to strike up conversations with strangers, to meet new people from all over and organize a day’s activities, but the pandemic has done more than hamper worldwide travel. It has also changed certain attitudes. Less people seem to be willing to sit down with strangers to have conversations while the pandemic lingers.

That’s not to say people are more obtuse or less friendly, but there is a sort of wariness hanging about all interactions. Most travelers I met spoke similarly about that general feeling hanging like a cloud above people’s heads. Part of it was the lack of people in hostels, but there also was a defining sense of separation.

Kyle Barr is a freelancer writer and the former editor of The Port Times Record, The Village Beacon Record and The Times of Middle Country.

Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim and challenger Maria Scheuring during a debate at TBR News Media’s office Oct. 21. Photos by Rita J. Egan

Development in the Town of Smithtown is on the top of town supervisor candidates’ minds on the way to election day Nov. 2. Incumbent Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) lauds his and board members’ efforts to revitalize downtowns and sewer infrastructure. Meanwhile, his challenger, local attorney and Democrat Maria Scheuring, said she is concerned about overdevelopment.

Wehrheim has spent nearly 50 years in town government, working through the ranks of the town parks department from 1972 until he was appointed department director in 1989. He retired from that position in 2003 when he was elected to the Town Council. Wehrheim was put forward as the Republican frontrunner for supervisor in 2017, ahead of previous supervisor Patrick Vecchio, who had been in the position for close to four decades. Wehrheim won the close primary and went on to handily win his supervisor seat that November.

Photo by Rita J. Egan

Scheuring grew up in the Bronx, where she worked in the Bronx D.A.’s office before moving to Smithtown in 2006. She currently has a private practice dealing in matters from guardianship to visiting clients in nursing homes to looking over music contracts. A musician herself, she is also the executive director of Alive After Five festival in Patchogue, where she said her frequent attendance of village meetings has given her insight into the struggles of local government. 

During an in-house debate in TBR News Media’s offices, Scheuring said she was concerned with the number of empty storefronts in Smithtown, especially due to the pandemic. She said she counted around 25 empty buildings along West Main Street from Katie’s bar to Route 111. She would propose making a director of industry a full-time position to work with the community and “only find appropriate stores, or restaurants or businesses that could be put in those empty storefronts, but not taking away from the current businesses that are there.” She also proposed taking the empty bowling alley located near the Smithtown train station and turning it into a youth and community center.

Wehrheim said COVID-19 had an impact on all three of Smithtown’s main small business districts, in the St. James, Smithtown and Kings Park hamlets, though the vacancy rate among all three remains 12%. He defended the town’s response to the pandemic, saying Smithtown instituted a three-day turnaround outdoor dining permit, which around 80 restaurants and bars took advantage of. That permit and permit process had been extended into the current year. The town took its audio/visual staff, which work out of the code and safety office, and created lengthy videos about how each business was adjusting to COVID measures, which were published on the town app and social media. 

Still, Scheuring said she is most concerned about new development, especially new apartments along Smithtown’s main streets. She said her old Bronx neighborhood in Throgs Neck was being slowly transformed from single family homes into apartment complexes. She said she doesn’t see how the town is prepared for new incoming residents, whether it’s the impact on schools or traffic. She pointed to Babylon and Sayville that have “thriving main streets” without apartment buildings.

“I think a lot of people feel that way,” she said. “I don’t think that they are happy that there’s an apartment complex going up right on [Smithtown’s] Main Street. The traffic is bad enough, it’s going to cause more traffic.”

She added that she was further concerned with the price of some of these apartments, that they are overpriced for single people and that many who move in “don’t have roots, they don’t intend to put roots in this community necessarily.” Scheuring further asked why the town instead doesn’t focus on building townhouses, such as those in Patchogue.

The current supervisor said that Smithtown has changed drastically from when he was a young man, when most of the town was farmland. Now, “that ship has sailed.” He argued that most experts agree that the way to save main streets is to have constant foot traffic within the downtowns, and that requires apartments, and especially mixed-use buildings with living space above and commercial space below. He added these apartments are important for keeping both young and old on Long Island, but residential neighborhoods will not suddenly start seeing apartment complexes going up on their blocks.

“We have beautiful residential communities in the Town of Smithtown — they will never be hampered or affected by what we do,” Wehrheim said. “We do it in commercial areas. Some of the developments that some folks have talked about … they’re developments that we’re doing in blighted areas.”

The other big controversial topic within the town, especially the North Shore communities, remains the proposed Gyrodyne development on the Flowerfield property in St. James, especially plans for a sewage treatment plant on the property. 

Photo by Rita J. Egan

Wehrheim said that now the renovations on Lake Avenue in St. James are complete, including underground sewer infrastructure, the town would be able to connect to a sewage treatment plant, either to the north, at Gyrodyne, but if not then also east or south. Similarly, with plans to renovate Kings Park business district in a similar way, state approval for a sewage treatment plant on the old Kings Park Psychiatric Center property is a huge boon for residents in that area. 

Water quality and the health of coastal bays remains top priority, Wehrheim said. He cited the town’s recent acquisition of the Oasis gentlemen’s club through eminent domain in order to protect the head of the Nissequogue River.

As far as Gyrodyne is concerned, he said the only action currently happening is the Smithtown Planning Board will be making a decision on an eight-lot subdivision of the Flowerfield property, “then the Town Board will have an opportunity to work with the principals of their property on what is going in there. We will look at it as a Town Board, if and when the subdivision is done, and then we will control what gets developed there through our planning professionals and our environmental professionals on that site.” 

Scheuring said it has been hard for the community to understand what is currently happening with the Gyrodyne development, and that at meetings and other community gatherings, people “are saying they just didn’t want that, they want green space, they don’t want overdevelopment — the traffic is already bad on 25A.”

She went on to say “there is no information about the latest plans for this town,” regarding this or other developments. Wehrheim countered that the town does regular updates on its website and now has an app for residents to get up-to-date info on their phones. Meetings are also livestreamed and accessible to the general public.

Overall, Scheuring said, as a Smithtown resident and mother of three, she represents a good portion of the community, and she would like to focus on the use of properties to maintain the town’s character.

“As a member of this community, I feel passionate about these things, because this is my family,” she said.

Wehrheim said his track record speaks for itself, and if elected he would continue with parks and downtowns revitalization efforts, as well as keeping an open and transparent town hall. “The fact that it’s been my career, and I love doing it, bodes well for me to continue to serve the Smithtown public,” he said.


Candidates for Huntington Town Board, from left, David Bennardo, Sal Ferro, Jennifer Hebert and Joseph Schramm took part in a debate at TBR News Media’s office. Photos by Rita J. Egan

With two seats open on the Huntington Town Board, whoever finds themselves filling those empty positions will have their hands full, whether it’s helping bring business to the town during and after COVID-19 or dealing with water quality issues and shoring up the coastline.

Despite all that, the four candidates vying for the Town Board each said during a relaxed and downright friendly debate within TBR News Media’s office that they want to reestablish a sense of bipartisanship and civility to politics, especially as they look to represent a way forward for Huntington in these uncertain times.

Candidates David Bennardo and Sal Ferro are running on the Republican and Conservative party lines, while Joseph Schramm and Jennifer Hebert have gained the nods of the Democratic and Working Families parties. With current council seats for Ed Smyth (R), who is running for  town supervisor, and Mark Cuthbertson (D), running for county legislator, their seats will be filled by two newcomers in 2022. 

Photo by Rita J. Egan

All candidates agreed that the rising cost of living on Long Island and Huntington is a major issue for everyone. Schramm, who lives in Northport, owns a sports marketing agency that includes high-end soccer clientele. He said he moved his business mostly remote, away from its old office in Manhattan and now bases it in Huntington. He said there are multiple businesses looking to move out from New York like his, and that this is an opportunity for the town to attract them to the North Shore. He would start a committee to specifically look at attracting businesses like other television and production companies.

Ferro, of Commack and the CEO of Alure Home Improvements, agreed that the town should attract new businesses, adding that Huntington has a lot to offer, whether it’s the Melville office corridor, a regional medical center, a large train station and access to the Hauppauge Industrial Park. The town can relay these opportunities by creating zoning where people want to develop.

“Why did Amazon go with Oyster Bay and not Huntington — it was more attractive,” Ferro said. “We’re not attractive, you have to become attractive.”

Bennardo, a Greenlawn resident, recently retired as the superintendent of South Huntington school district. He argued that the town would best be served with certain tax abatements, tax incentives and cutting red tape that restricts businesses from setting up shop, especially in the empty spaces that are already developed throughout the town. He referred to one example as the lengthy wait for pool permits, which not only hurts homeowners, but decreases the number of contracts for businesses who install those pools.

Hebert, who in the past was a nine-year school board member and president of Huntington school district, said she comes from a family of small business owners and that she agreed that there’s a need to support and welcome those large businesses into the town. As for the empty storefronts around town, she would gather experts in current business trends to see where the market is going and find which businesses will survive being in brick and mortar. At the same time, she argued there’s a need for the town to cut down on expenses and potentially hire a grant writer to analyze different new grant-based revenue streams. As well, the town could use an updated master plan.

“I think that Huntington has been going about this in a very haphazard way,” she said. “And, really, what we need is a plan that reflects what our community wants and what we have available for us to do in Huntington.”

Photo by Rita J. Egan

Ferro agreed but added that it’s better to find grant writers specialized in specific arenas like the environment. Further, he said that while COVID has posed a problem for some businesses, it has also proved a boon to some others. The recent closure of the venerable Book Revue in Huntington village was a big blow to the community. Regarding the issue of filling empty storefronts in the town, the home improvements CEO argued that a big problem is rent prices, especially in the village. He said the town needs to look at rent abatements and work with landlords to try and fill those empty storefronts.

Looking at the empty spaces in the Huntington train station parking lot shows that less people are commuting to the city for work, Schramm said. Instead, he argued the town should look at more shared office spaces for small businesses. 

“Let’s not stumble over what’s behind us,” the marketing agency owner said. “We have to reimagine our downtowns, but what we have is a huge new workforce that exists in our town. Let’s figure out a way to leverage it.”

Bennardo also confirmed his support for rent abatements for small businesses, especially since mom-and-pop shops make so little money for the first few years after opening. He said certain regulations, like those that restrict upstairs apartments, could be nixed to better facilitate 

“I don’t see any real thing wrong with using a part of your building for two or three apartments upstairs,” he said. “It’s really what’s going on across the country. They don’t put six-story buildings up, they don’t destroy the integrity of a neighborhood, you don’t even know they’re there.”

Recent reports by environmental groups on Long Island routinely report water quality issues with bays on the North Shore. Particularly the bays in Centerport and Cold Spring Harbor report dangerous lack of oxygen in the water, which has led in part to dangerous algae blooms. 

Photo by Rita J. Egan

Schramm said he would support dredging Northport Harbor, which he said would be “an expensive proposition, but it has a lot of environmental benefits,” especially regarding fish die-offs and hypoxia in the bay waters. Northport also has a bio-filtration FLUPSY program in the works, which will help preserve the oyster population and clean the harbor waterways, and he said he would like to see that expanded to other bays in the Town of Huntington. Other than the bays, Schramm said he would like to see town parks and facilities updated and improved to the same quality as neighboring townships.

Hebert agreed, and shared that she would like to deal with concerns of Centerport and Eaton’s Neck residents about beach erosion and crumbling seawalls. Especially important is getting everybody to sit around the table to confer, with Hebert adding that she doesn’t feel text or even Zoom meetings have facilitated the interactions that actually get things done.

Bennardo said additional issues remain with facilitating upland and downland drainage systems, and that there’s a need now to clean out those drainage systems before they leak into both the aquifer and the bays. The other issue remains cesspools, something all the candidates agreed were antiquated and need to be replaced where they can. “That’s not an area where we can let cost be an argument because it’s our drinking water,” he said. 

Ferro said there are millions of dollars in grant money available to aid in environmental remediation projects within the next several years, and it’s imperative that the town focuses on getting a piece of that pie. He agreed with the other candidates that oysters are a good option for cleaning out bays, adding that regarding the antiquated cesspools, promoting nitrogen-reducing systems where sewers won’t fit is also critical. 

Overall, the candidates confirmed their commitment to seeing a change in the way local government sees the people and, perhaps more introspectively, sees itself. Ferro said he’s more than used to working with electeds on both sides of the aisle. Schramm, as an openly gay man who lives with his life-partner Steve, said he would work toward a more inviting Huntington for everyone. “Our Town Hall needs to start having people provide sign language at Town Board meetings,” he said. “We need to include everybody in our community. We need to be a welcoming Town Hall.”

Around the table, among mutual compliments, Hebert put an emphasis on the need for compromise and a shared sense of consideration for each other. “I would say you have four people here who are representing exactly what you should do to restore trust and leadership,” she said.

Bennardo echoed the sentiment, adding, “We all want to win, but we’ve made a decision that you have to act like an adult. No good compromise ever happens when someone’s calling someone a socialist or Marxist or a fascist or any of that — it’s nonsense.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon speaks during a media event at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank. File photo by Kevin Redding

Errol Toulon Jr. (D) is running again for his seat as the Suffolk County sheriff with the hope to continue his efforts providing aid services for nonviolent inmates alongside the office’s law enforcement work with gangs and sex trafficking. 

Toulon’s opponent, William Amato, who is running on the Republican ticket, did not respond to multiple requests for a debate with TBR staff. The Suffolk County GOP office confirmed Amato is not actively campaigning.

Toulon, who has cross-party endorsements from both the Suffolk Democratic and Conservative parties, said his job as head of his department is “to take the brunt of everything, good and bad. And during these real challenging times, I have to ask, ‘How do I keep my staff calm, how do I keep them safe, how do I feel like they’re still valued?’” And compared to his previous positions in corrections, his current job gives him a satisfaction he hasn’t had before.

“I have a job now that directly impacts the community that I live and work in,” he said.

The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office is the law enforcement branch dedicated to managing Suffolk’s jail system. Along with handling inmate populations, the office’s sheriff deputies are responsible for patrolling roadways alongside Suffolk County Police Department, investigating crimes committed on county property as well as managing the Pine Barrens protection hotline. The Sheriff’s Office also contains several specialized bureaus and sections for emergency management, DWI enforcement, domestic violence, among others.

Toulon, a former Rikers Island officer and captain, was voted into his first four-year term as sheriff in 2017 and was the first Black man elected to the role in the county’s history. Over those four years, his office has been involved with several high-profile drug and gang investigations, which included fact-finding trips to El Salvador and Los Angeles to investigate the connections of MS-13 to Long Island. He is proud of his office’s accomplishments, including his work with the office’s human trafficking unit and the creation of the START Resource Center, which provides inmates leaving county jails with employment and housing assistance as well as drug treatment and mental health care services.

But the year 2020 would throw a monkey wrench into all best-laid plans. Toulon said last year started out rough with the change to New York’s bail reform laws. Then the COVID-19 pandemic created a host of new challenges, especially safeguarding prison populations as well as corrections officers. 

During COVID’s height, officers kept inmates largely separated, which resulted in a minimal number of reported cases in Suffolk jails. Still, the year did have its share of tragedies, including the loss of Investigator Sgt. Keith Allison, a 25-year veteran of the office who died from issues relating to the virus in December. Recently, the Sheriff’s Office had to cancel its open house and family day due to staff shortages and the spread of the Delta variant. The sheriff’s website reports that, in September, 29 inmates tested positive for COVID, where 26 of those reportedly contracted the virus while in jail. Inmates are required to quarantine in a special housing pod for 14 days before being moved to general housing. Staff must take temperature checks and wear masks when coming into the facilities.

And all these extra protections have exacerbated current staffing shortages. Toulon said the Sheriff’s Office is currently down around 180 corrections officers and 43 sheriff’s deputies.

The recruitment struggle is one felt across many industries, law enforcement not excluded, though Toulon said his office has a uniquely difficult time getting people to apply, to have applicants pass the required tests and then to keep them on after they’ve had a taste of what can be a trying job at times. The challenge in recruiting is partially due to what he said has been a degradation of trust between law enforcement and the community since the start of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. The Suffolk sheriff has also seen more senior officers retire because of health concerns during the pandemic, and because of COVID they were not able to host any new police classes last year. 

Though there are currently over 1,700 people who are ready to take the next law enforcement exam in November, the expected acceptance rate is normally around just 15% to 20%, Toulon said. This lack of staff also has the effect of increasing required overtime for current officers, leading to faster burnout. 

“Sometimes, even when you get through the entire process and they have their first days in a jail when they’re working a lot of overtime, having to deal with inmates … it becomes challenging on the individual, especially someone that’s not used to it,” the sheriff said.

It’s another stress on a system that he said requires more financial help to truly give aid to the transient, nonviolent jail populations who need it. Toulon would like to see more psychologists and psychiatrists within the jail providing counseling, though there’s currently no budget for it.

“The mental health institutions throughout New York state were closed in the 1980s or 1990s, and so these individuals are winding up in jail, but [state government] never funded the jails,” he said. “The staffing model for the Sheriff’s Office was really from a 1960s or ’70s version, and it hasn’t been updated to what we need to do to address the particular individuals in our custody.”

Though the sheriff said their new initiatives have not increased the office’s budget, he is still banging the drum for more funding. Suffolk County reportedly received approximately $286 million in aid from the federal American Rescue Plan back in May, though Toulon said they have not received any percentage of those funds. County spokesperson Derek Poppe said in an email that no ARP money is slated to go to the sheriff’s department.

Challenges still exist for Suffolk jails due to the pandemic. Corrections officers are still required to wear masks on their shifts. At the same time, only around 40% of corrections officers are currently vaccinated. There is no legal requirement for Suffolk law enforcement to be vaccinated in order to work, and while Toulon is fully vaccinated, he said he told his staff to consult their primary care physicians to make that determination.

“I understand it’s an individual’s choice at the moment,” he said. 

The number of people incarcerated in Suffolk jails hovers around 780, according to the sheriff, though that population is transient, and can change from day to day. The Sheriff’s Office, through the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, has tried to provide vaccinations for its inmates, leading to around 350 so far. Still, only approximately 30% to 40% of that jail population is currently vaccinated. “All we can do is just try to encourage the inmates to at least receive the vaccine — hopefully help them learn a little bit more if they’re a little skeptical before making that decision,” he said.

As for the future, the sheriff said he wants to work hard to make sure that the majority of the inmate population — all those who are nonviolent and not a danger to the community — receive the social services they need.

“Everybody should be held accountable for their actions, I should be very clear on that, and [incarceration] is necessary for those who would do harm to be removed from society,” Toulon said. “But those men and women that are going through domestic violence, substance abuse — we have many victims of human trafficking that are in our custody, many females that we’re working with — we want to help them, empower them so that they can support themselves and support their families.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker speaks during a press conference in 2017 about the creation of a permanent panel to address the ever-growing opioid crisis. File photo by Kyle Barr

Suffolk County’s 2020 annual report on the lingering opioid crisis showed an increase in the number of overdoses from the previous year, with experts expressing concern for the impact the pandemic has had on addiction rates.

The Suffolk County Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel released its findings Dec. 29 showing there were 345 fatal overdoses in 2020, which includes pending analysis of some drug overdose cases, according to the county medical examiner’s office. While, on its face, that number did not increase over the past year, nonfatal overdoses climbed by 90 to 1,208, com-pared to 2019, according to Suffolk County police. This increase defies a general trending de-crease in nonfatal overdoses since 2017. Police also reported 910 opioid overdose-antidote na-loxone saves for individuals compared to 863 in 2019.

In some ways more worrying than overall overdose numbers has been the treatment situation on the ground, with professionals in the field reporting an increase in relapses during the pan-demic, according to the report.

Numbers released by police after a May inquiry from TBR News Media showed overdoses were up dramatically when comparing months before the start of the shutdown orders in March to the weeks directly afterward. Medical experts and elected officials all agreed that pandemic-related anxiety, plus the economic downturn and mandated isolation led to increased drug use overall. People in the treatment industry have also said the pandemic has pushed them toward utilizing telehealth.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), the panel chair, said COVID-19 has led to challenges among all county governmental and community agencies, with “overwhelmed hospitals fighting on the frontline, addiction rates skyrocketing with limited resources and economic un-certainty due to business disruption.”

There have been 184 deaths related to opioids in 2020, according to the report, with 161 poten-tial drug overdoses still pending review. Among the North Shore towns, not accounting for those still in review, there were 18 deaths reported in Huntington, 13 in Smithtown and 69 in Brookhaven, the latter of which had the most opioid-related deaths of any Suffolk township. Police data also shows the 6th Precinct bore the brunt of the most overdoses and the most Narcan saves.

National data also bears a grim toll. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Pre-vention’s National Center for Health Statistics there has been a 10% increase in drug overdose deaths from March 2019 to March 2020. Approximately 19,416 died from overdoses in the U.S. in the first three months of 2020, compared to 16,682 in 2019. 

In addition to Suffolk’s report, the advisory panel has sent letters to state and federal reps ask-ing them not to cut any state funding for treatment and prevention and for the state to  sup-port provider reimbursement rates for telehealth and virtual care that are on par with face-to-face rates. They also requested that New York State waives the in-person meeting requirement for people to receive buprenorphine treatment, which can help aid in addiction to painkillers.

County legislators are also touting a new youth addiction panel, which is set to begin meeting in the new year. The county is also continuing its lawsuits against several pharmaceutical com-panies for their hand in starting the opioid epidemic. 

That’s not to say there haven’t been other setbacks in Suffolk’s efforts against opioids. Last Oc-tober, county Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) was arrested for an alleged at-tempt to trade oxycodone for sex. Spencer was the one to initiate the creation of the youth panel. He has pleaded not guilty, though he has stepped down from his position on the panel, among other responsibilities.

There are currently 29 members on the opioid advisory panel, including representatives from the county Legislature, law enforcement, first responders, treatment centers and shelters.

While Anker thanked current members of the panel for their continued efforts, she said more work is needed.

“The opioid epidemic is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed continuously from all fronts,” she said.