Editorials

METRO photo

As the number of COVID-19 cases rise in minority communities at a higher rate than primarily white areas, North Shore residents may think those numbers don’t affect them, but they do.

The members of these communities are our co-workers, our restaurant workers, our laborers, our neighbors — whether they live next door or in the next town. The pandemic has made it glaringly obvious many of our society’s problems, among them the disparities minorities face on Long Island.

A good deal of information coming out about coronavirus cases shows that black and Hispanic Americans are dying of the disease at rates higher than Caucasians. In Suffolk black residents make up 13 percent of those who have died from the virus and Latinos 14 percent. These numbers are high considering black Americans make up just 8 percent of Suffolk County residents. Latinos are approximately 19 percent of the population, but the number of cases among the immigrant community is likely very undercounted, as crucial information about the virus has had a harder time reaching non-English speakers.

Many from these communities work “essential” jobs in service and blue-collar industries, many of which pay a lower income overall. This can lead to poor or no health care, which would hinder someone from visiting a doctor when they become sick. It also means many who would rather stay home lack a choice but to go out and work, potentially bringing the virus home to their families.

While Suffolk has identified areas where higher populations are testing positive for COVID-19, and in turn are extending testing in those areas, more can be done for these populations. This virus has reminded us that our health care system needs an overhaul — and that these populations are at greater risk due to higher cases of heart disease and diabetes. While it may be too late to make major changes during this pandemic, there are small things we can do right now.

For one, this is no time for one to worry about a person’s immigration status. During a pandemic, as health care professionals and elected officials try to manage the storm, everyone who is currently in the U.S. needs to know they can go to a hospital with no questions asked to receive the care they need. There also needs to be a way to provide alternating housing for those who come down with the virus, whether that means opening up hotel rooms or college dorms. There are many, right here on Long Island, who live in crowded apartments and houses. Situations like those make it difficult for someone to isolate themselves from others to prevent more infections. For those living in houses with multiple generations, this also presents a huge danger to vulnerable populations like the elderly.

Personal protective equipment has been in short supply throughout the country, and it’s up to elected officials as well as business owners to ensure that their employees have the proper amount of gloves, masks and other gear to do their jobs. It shouldn’t matter whether they’re on the front lines at hospitals or cleaning bathrooms in a medical facility, serving as home health aides, delivering groceries or working the fields.

There is always more we can do for our friends and neighbors. One day this pandemic will pass but let’s hope the lessons we’ve learned, especially about those who have suffered because of inequities, will stick with us and inspire us to do better.

Of all the things that have come undone since the start of the pandemic, one of the worst has been the loss of confidence in the systems that have governed us for so long. 

Our local businesses are experiencing untold hardship. People are suffering at home, furloughed or dismissed from their jobs, and many are having a hard time paying the bills or buying food. 

Beyond all that, people are dying. The most vulnerable —the old and those with underlying medical issues — have been the ones most harmed by the pandemic.

We’ve had a long time to come to terms with the issues in our society, but what the coronavirus has made clear is the brittleness of so many of our institutions. There has been more than one report about how the federal government failed to follow the pandemic response playbook present in prior administrations, and how the U.S., in a bid to tighten the financial belt, eliminated people in government whose job was to identify and mitigate such large-scale viral disasters.

We do not know how the end of this virus will play out. Doctors have said the only way for us to truly break away from the restrictions placed on us by SARS Cov-2 is to either develop a vaccine or have widespread, unprecedented testing of practically every U.S. citizen. States like New York have called for such tests, but the federal government has not yet hinted at doing anything close to what would be needed.

What is needed, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said so succinctly in his April 20 address, is less a reopening, but a reimagining of our systems.

“Let’s use this crisis, this situation, this time to actually learn the lessons … let’s reimagine what we want society to be,” Cuomo said.

The governor cited things like the public transportation system, which has for so long been a bane of so many commuters. The Long Island Rail Road has seen a near 95 percent loss in ridership and now faces real financial collapse. With that in mind, flip that picture, and imagine a service that is both fast and efficient in the vein of Tokyo’s or Seoul’s public transportation system. 

Imagine rent prices not being upwards of $1,500 for a studio apartment. Imagine housing prices that don’t restrict all but the middle to upper class affording a home on Long Island. Imagine young people not being pushed off the Island because of its general unaffordability.

This is what happens during a crisis. We see the things that have exacerbated the pandemic, namely a health care system that is simply not built to give the greatest amount of help to the greatest number of people. 

We witness the outsized unfairness that large businesses with thousands of employees nationwide somehow are allowed to apply for loans designated for small businesses. The Washington Post reported close to 70 large companies applied for and got loans through the payment protection program. While a company like Shake Shack actually returned the $10 million small business loan it received, the fact there were many thousands of businesses that could not get a dime despite applying as soon as they were able shows how high current processes are stacked against them.

We can do better, and if we can build upon the lessons made only more apparent during our time in isolation, we will be safer and prepared for a better world. 

Photo from Metro

COVID-19 has completely changed the way we all live.

But along with worrying about keeping themselves and their families healthy, thousands of small business owners across New York state are losing sleep over how to keep this virus from killing the businesses they have worked so hard to build.

At the same time, lawmakers in Albany are trying to craft a budget in the face of plunging revenues. Sales taxes — much of them generated by small business — brought in a whopping $73.6 billion last year. Our schools, as well as other vital government services, rely on these funds. When a business fails — and too many are on the precipice of failure right now — that sales tax revenue goes, too.

We believe a simple proposal could help restart local business and bolster sales tax revenues, but swift action is required by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the state legislature.

Small businesses are the backbone of our communities. Everyone wants a thriving downtown where they can shop, eat or go to a movie. The good news is that small businesses have always been engines of innovation and entrepreneurship, and we are seeing that again today as they adapt to the new reality. Local gyms are streaming personal training sessions. Restaurants offer free delivery and online happy hours. Medical practices are expanding their telemedicine capabilities. Car mechanics are making house calls that require no personal contact at all.

Of course, it’s vital that these businesses let potential customers know about their services. That’s the role of advertising in all its myriad forms. But advertising costs money, and the sad truth is that advertising is one of the first things small businesses cut when times are tough.

Put yourself in the shoes of a local restaurateur with a stack of bills and very little money coming in. By the time she finishes paying the most urgent bills — rent, food suppliers, payroll — there’s not much left for advertising. Whatever stimulus money she gets from Washington or Albany will most likely be needed to keep the door open and the lights on. Yet studies show that how well businesses survive a downturn is in large part determined by whether they continue to market and advertise during the hard times.

Fortunately, there is a way for Albany to prime the sales-tax pump to keep revenue flowing to both small businesses and state coffers. Let businesses use some of the money they would have sent to Albany, as sales taxes, to market their new offerings. The formula would be simple: Every dollar a small business spends on advertising (up to some reasonable limit) would be a dollar saved off that business’s sales tax bill. 

It would be a win-win-win. Local businesses would be healthier because the increased advertising would jump-start sales. The state would get more sales tax revenue because local businesses would be selling more. And media companies (like ours) would benefit from the additional ad revenue. We’d like to think that we, too, are vital to the character and strength of our communities, not to mention our democracy. Think for a moment of the critical role that journalists have played in getting vital local information out to your community during this unprecedented crisis.

The legislature has a lot on its plate right now, and the temptation will be to bury this idea, or to take the shortsighted view that we can’t afford to do it right now. But right now is when it’s needed. We’ve been impressed with Cuomo’s levelheaded leadership in this crisis, and we call on him to back this innovative yet simple policy.

-— From the New York Press Association

Photo from METRO

In medicine, there is the concept of triage. Essentially, it is prioritization, the assignment of degrees of injury or illnesses that necessitates hard decisions. When resources are limited, and when the number of patients is staggering, medical teams often need to focus on who is in most dire straits. Beyond that, however even more morose, it is prioritizing patients that medical professionals believe can be saved and those who are more likely to die. 

It is not a healthy subject to think long and hard about if you’re not on the front lines of fighting the virus. It is something doctors have learned to do in war zones and during great hardships.

If things do not go smoothly, and if hospitals don’t have the correct amount of resources, personal protective devices, hospital beds and ventilators, then once we reach the peak number of cases, that is where events could lead. 

Photo from METRO

One of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) most recent and most controversial acts as of Friday, April 3, was to sign an executive order saying they would take necessary equipment like ventilators from hospitals upstate which have seen relatively few cases and transport them to the hospitals in the most need. 

That is in itself a sort of triage, a step to prioritize who needs such medical items the most. To say some hospitals, such as Stony Brook University Hospital, which was cited by Cuomo as a coronavirus hot spot, need more resources is to say they will be the ones who will be keeping even more people from dying from the virus. 

People are helping these hospital workers in any way they can. We have seen local businesses and business groups band together to offer food for hospital and EMS workers. We have seen local residents create masks and other personal protective equipment from cloth they had at home. Libraries have come together to 3D print necessary PPE in the form of face shields. We have seen so much good come from our North Shore and Suffolk County community.

But on the smaller end, with the people who are simply staying at home, we have to recognize just how much good that has done.

Cuomo recently stated they are hopeful we may be reaching the plateau in the number of cases New York is seeing. It won’t be the end of the issues. We will likely have to remain isolated for several more weeks, but the amount of good social distancing has done is evident. People simply staying at home, getting the exercise when they can and not shaking hands has likely prevented an even greater overload of New York’s medical systems.

Many people are feeling burdened with a sense they are doing nothing. They are out of work, and they have nothing on their plate. It’s a malaise that settles deep, and we should all be thinking of the people who did not have money at the start of this pandemic, and now have even less since being out of a job.

New York will have to grapple with that. We Long Islanders should not feel like we have simply wasted time in languishing at home. This is society in action, with many thousands of people making sacrifices for the whole. It’s a sort of triage of the self and of society, finding what is more important and focusing on that. We should focus on the people who mean most to us, our friends and family. We should focus on the people who are in the most need and attempt to reach them and offer whatever kind of support. And at the same time, we should focus on ourselves, rest and take some time to think. When this whole thing comes around, all that time we spent in our homes will not have been wasted. It will mean a society that has learned to care for others in a time of crisis.

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Rocco's Pizzeria in Mount Sinai donated pizzas to Mather Hospital's Emergency Room staff on April 2.

In his March 27 daily COVID-19 address, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said the current pandemic will test the mettle of all residents, potentially shaping their person in the long road ahead.

“This is a moment that forges character, forges people, changes people, makes them stronger, makes them weaker, but this is a moment that will change character,” he said.

As we look around our coverage area, especially at the business owners, we can’t help but hope this crisis will make our communities stronger.

It would have been easy for many owners to just shut their doors when multiple executive orders paused nonessential businesses from offering their services, while requiring restaurants to stop sit-down service for the time being. With many still recovering a few years after the last recession, some are still dealing with low reserve funds, and while federal relief is being made available for small businesses, some owners wonder if the help will be enough.

However, most are being resilient — doing everything in their power to keep offering services to their communities. They aren’t looking at their bank accounts and saying, “We can’t do this in this environment,” they are saying they will do their best.

Restaurants are adapting to the new climate providing curbside pickup and amping up their deliveries, including those who didn’t offer these options in the past. With their finger on the pulse of residents’ needs, they are also offering specials giving patrons a choice of a certain number of trays of food at a value price, so a customer can pick up a meal one night and feed their family for a couple of days.

But even more than that, there are several examples of restaurants giving back to the community by offering free or discounted meals to the elderly, homebound and health care workers. Multiple businesses in Port Jeff have started delivering meals to local hospitals, aided by the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce and Port Jeff Business Improvement District.

Dancing schools, martial arts and yoga studios, as well as other fitness centers, are posting instructional videos to their websites and offering classes via Zoom, Facebook Live or other platforms. Even on-site tutoring businesses have embraced online tools to stay in touch with students and help parents with the current homeschooling situation.

These innovative ideas will help increase the owners’ chances of keeping their doors open once America comes out on the other side of this pandemic. It’s allowed them to keep on some of their staff members and will hopefully allow them to hire back those they had to lay off. It will keep their business names on residents’ minds.

The current challenges facing the business community can be an opportunity for them to grow, and many owners are realizing this. Small businesses are the heart and soul of our towns on Long Island. Thank you to the owners and their staffs for doing everything in their power to keep our communities’ hearts beating and souls hopeful.

From left, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). Photo from the governor’s office

In the panic of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed, by several differing estimates, 50 to 100 million people worldwide, nobody trusted anybody, whether it was their neighbors or even their friends or family. The distrust started early when the government started lying to them, telling them it was just another standard flu, not to be worried about. 

Once people saw men and women bleeding from their mouths and noses in the middle of the street, they knew it wasn’t just a mild influenza. The level of trust was so bad there were reports people starved in their homes, with nobody willing to bring them food in the most rural areas of this country.

A crisis requires clear leadership. It cannot be politically motivated. It cannot be muddled in the daily sparring of political actors. It has to be precise, meaningful and factual. 

We here at TBR News Media are thankful that some officials are doing just that today in our time of crisis. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has to be commended for his response to the coronavirus crisis. Cuomo laid his cards on the table. He has been upfront about getting people statistics and updates on what the state is doing. He has made more and more drastic decisions in order to curb the number of infected people within the state.

“If you are upset by what we have done, be upset at me,” he said at a March 17 press conference. “County executives did not do this. The village mayor did not do this. The city mayor did not make these decisions. I made these decisions.”

Cuomo added, “The buck stops on my desk … I assume full responsibility.”

By owning the problems these executive decisions have caused, the governor has accepted the responsibility for everything that is happening and will happen. 

That doesn’t just take guts, that takes a true sense of civic responsibility and leadership.

We agree with that. We need only look at Italy to see just how destabilizing the disease can be if it’s left unchecked for too long. Doctors and nurses there have been made to triage, making decisions that mean life and death for some patients rather than others. 

We should also laud County Executive Steve Bellone (D), who on his daily calls with the press has been forthcoming in all details related to COVID-19. His answers have so far been consistent, and we hope such reliable communication continues.

There is no way to know the true impact of everything going on here long term. As expansive testing makes its way onto Long Island, finally, the number of known cases has spiked. We have not seen the end of it, nor really the peak, medical experts have warned.

That’s not even mentioning the economic impacts. Companies, both large and small, being shuttered for weeks on end could mean many thousands of unemployed people in just a few short months regardless of stimulus packages from Congress. Business owners have had to limit hours and foot traffic, or otherwise close completely. Many of those storefronts may never open their doors again.

There’s something strange about how mankind seeks strong leadership in trying times. There have been more than one book and movie about how people have handed power over to tyrants when the stage is set for mass upheaval. 

But this is a case of officials doing what they were elected to do. Every measure is instigated with a calm reassurance with a note of trying to make things better. This is New York at its best. We saw it with 9/11, and we’re seeing it here again. 

That is the kind of leadership we need now.

TBR News Media temporarily closes its offices to the public starting March 19.

At TBR News Media we remain committed in our responsibility to our communities.

That’s why in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and following the advice of health experts, until further notice our office will be closed to the public.

Our employees will be working from home as much as possible. As always, we will be checking our voicemails and emails and answering those messages. So, of course, keep on writing and calling. 

If you do see us out in the community, just as we have been doing for more than a week, we won’t be shaking hands and such, but all of us are more than happy to offer you an elbow to bump.

It’s important for each and every one of us in the office to do our best to stay healthy, as we need to be here to give you the news from the local perspective, and if we do run into you, that we don’t pass on anything to you.

When it comes to reporting the news, it will be business as usual. You will see our papers in your mailbox and local newsstands, and our website will be updated with the most recent news related to the COVID-19 situation in between editions.

We will also keep in touch with elected officials, local hospitals, school districts, organizations and more to bring you the most accurate news possible.

This is all unprecedented territory for all of us. However, modern technology will help us get the job done.

For example, just the other day Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) held an update on the county’s coronavirus response on a conference call with local journalists. With not only telephones, but FaceTime, Skype, and for those who are busy, emails, we will ask questions and track down answers.

As for our office outside the editorial department, our employees will stay connected through text messages, emails and Google Hangouts.

Speaking of joining forces, as always, readers are welcome to send in photos of anything interesting they see during their daily lives around our coverage area, whether it’s a house fire, car incident, wildlife at play or a beautiful sunset.

We would love to hear how everyone is doing during this time of temporary closures. Let’s hear your perspective, whether you’re a parent trying to balance work from home while monitoring your children’s studies, or a student trying to figure out what to do during this time outside of school buildings. Send us 400 words or less, and you may see your words on the Letters to the Editor page. Have more to say? We may just print it as a perspective piece in our news section.

We encourage our readers to keep up on the news, look for those pieces that attribute information to respected health organizations or experts — and heed their advice. That’s not to say there’s a need to overdo it and become panicked. Take the time to read respected and trusted sources, and don’t trust everything on Facebook as there are numerous rumors and falsities going around. Remember, always look toward trusted sources and fact-checking websites to get to the bottom of such rumors.

As we have been for more than 40 years, we will be here for our readers now and in the future.

The late Joe Rella, pictured in June of 2019 with Comsewogue School District Superintendent Jennifer Quinn. Photo by Kyle Barr

There are only so many people who could have done the job that Dr. Joe Rella, the former Comsewogue superintendent, did — teacher, principal and finally head of schools. If the scores of affectionate tributes posted to social media are anything to go on, Rella is one of the few folks you could point to that has made the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community what it is today.

Rella died last Friday at the too-young age of 69. He had been dealing with a diagnosis of bile duct cancer for the last few years, but still he kept at the job until he finally retired last year. Community members know there wasn’t a day that went by where Rella did not put himself forward for the benefit of the community, whether it was his weekly online story times or his constant attendance as the “piano man” at district concerts. Many in the community can point to examples of outreach and help he bestowed upon employees and students in the district.

North Shore residents often rightfully complain of their high taxes, the majority of which stem from school districts, but Rella showed that a school district can become the heart of the local hamlet and the epicenter for every goings-on in the area. It can become the source of pride and culture for residents, not only the entity that simply teaches students for 13 to 14 years at a time.

What we found in reporting on Comsewogue is that doors were always open. Most of the time, officials did not hesitate to speak on either positive events or district issues. In an age where there seems to be more and more red tape between district/school administrators and both journalists and the public, Comsewogue, under Rella’s guidance, showed just how effective being open to public comment could be. In a final interview with Rella before he retired, he spoke to one newbie editor of how important it was to listen to community feedback, no matter if it was negative and no matter if you may disagree with it. As a former music teacher, who brought music into everything he did, he said the important thing was to listen.

Rella was named one of TBR News Media’s People of the Year in both 1995 and 2010 for music and education, respectively. Though the papers have changed editors since then, the editorial staff was amazed reading those old articles, seeing just how much of the same man was in stories 25 years old as he was in articles written about him little more than half a year ago. There is a sense of compassion, of simply wanting to be there, to spread an awareness of purpose amongst students and staff and to act selflessly and to help define a community around a sense of selflessness and compassion.

Other supers have also made the list of People of the Year, including Elwood’s Ken Bossert — formerly Port Jeff superintendent — who has shown a similar sense of community engagement. 

Of course, we do not wish to diminish the hard work of the many heads of schools in our coverage areas, and we know many who have shown strides in district leadership. What we instead ask is for more people to look at the example Rella left in not just defining a school district, but defining neighborhoods and neighbors, of being the precedent which every student and even most residents could look toward. He was the one who looked to building trust not by demanding loyalty, but by creating a space everybody feels they’re on the same side and that all are working toward goals that benefit everyone. 

Rella will be missed, but his example remains one that all should live by.

A blood sample with respiratory coronavirus positive. Stock photo

“Fear is the mind killer.”

It’s a recurring phrase found in the seminal writing of Frank Herbert’s 1965 book “Dune.” Despite the complicated jumbling of sci-fi jargon and galactic themes of power, religion and politics, the one phrase sticks out, touching on a basic fact of human existence, and the ever-present element of terror in the hearts of humanity.

We experience that same overriding fear again and again, such as now when reading about the current outbreak of the coronavirus from China. There have already been five people announced to have caught the virus in the U.S. That is out of 110 people who are currently being investigated for having the virus, where over 30 have come back negative. New York City has yet to have seen a particular person come forward with the virus, but city hospitals are making preparations knowing it’s only a matter of time, according to The New York Times.

Long Island is in much the same way making such preparations, with Stony Brook University Hospital and other Long Island health centers putting plans into effect.

This isn’t some kind of new, alien virus. The coronavirus has been around for many years, and causes respiratory illnesses in animals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This new strain of the virus is being called the 2019 novel coronavirus. Deaths, experts say, have mostly been the elderly or those with underlying health conditions. 

There’s something primordially horrifying of the prospect of disease, and despite our modern sensibilities we still have not eclipsed that fear. There was swine flu during 2008 and 2009. There was Ebola in 2018. 

However, the coronavirus is not something to simply tune out. The death toll has now exceeded 132 persons, all of them in China, and there have been a reported approximately 4,500 cases confirmed, with some scientists saying the number of infections could be higher. 

That is not to say these diseases do not kill people, nor that they did not have to be met by concerted efforts of government and civilian medical professionals. But panicked reactions to such outbreaks rarely help. 

Factcheck.org posted its own data points of misinformation spread about the virus, with some on social media inaccurately saying there are 10s or 100s of thousands dead, when that’s simply not true or at all confirmed. 

The U.S. has already strongly suggested canceling any nonessential visits to China. Transport within the epicenter for the virus is already heavily restricted by Chinese officials. The CDC has said the virus can travel from person to person, so the agency has suggested that if one must travel, then they should avoid contact with obviously sick people, as well as with animals, both alive or dead, and animal markets. A person traveling should also wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or with hand sanitizer if no soap is available.

Of course, we at TBR News Media will try to keep abreast of any new developments of the disease from the local angle and put any such updates on our website, but we also ask you don’t let the fear kill you, body and mind.

File photo by Sara Megan-Walsh

As journalists, we share the frustrations of many residents in our communities who see the large number of empty storefronts — many left vacant for several years — while new developments seem to erupt out of the ground just a few feet away from derelict properties.

Imagine the grief felt by Huntington residents two years ago when Great Neck-based developer Villadom Corp. proposed construction of a 486,380-square-foot mall with retail and office space on the 50-acre property known as Elwood Orchard. Many residents feared overwhelming congestion on Route 25 and water quality issues. Meanwhile, empty buildings stood just to the east and west of the site.

Imagine the relief when the developer withdrew the application. Then think of the relief that Hauppauge residents felt last year when they saw a sign reading Relish restaurant, of Kings Park, was opening an additional location in the old Pizza Hut on Route 111. The blighted building had been vacant for decades.

Rows of vacant buildings spoil Port Jeff’s uptown vibe. The abandoned businesses along Lake Avenue in St. James and Main Street in Smithtown also point to serious problems. In Setauket, a former King Kullen still sits empty years after the chain closed those doors, and a decrepit building sits on the corner of Gnarled Hollow Road. Suffolk County was willing to buy the latter property with the Town of Brookhaven looking to maintain it as passive parkland. Some of these situations are examples of property owners holding out for more money. In which case, the only real victim is the community as a whole.

Elected officials need to ensure that these empty storefronts are filled to create vibrant shopping areas. It’s an important, even essential step to take to create stronger, cleaner and healthier communities. It also protects groundwater and can minimize roadway congestion.

Preserve that open space and fill the locations that are already set up for commerce first.

Local officials may be limited in how much they can dictate to developers but there are options. Take for example Decatur, Illinois, where the city recently hired a retail consultant to fill the vacant storefronts. Consultants or even town employees can be tasked in recruiting companies interested in entering the market. Businesses can be sold on the benefits of reconfiguration and renovation, rather than new construction.

Business owners can take responsibility, too, to maintain the quality of life in their neighborhoods where they do business. Recently, former Yankees star baseball player Mariano Rivera received an OK on a zoning change from the Town of Brookhaven to create a car dealership in Port Jefferson Station in an already developed space. While he plans to create one new additional building on site, he will expand on an existing one. The local civic and town board complimented him on his willingness to work with the local community. 

Many big businesses may come into an area focused on their branding, concerned with how their building needs to look, and insist on building from scratch in what they feel is an ideal location. We encourage elected officials to welcome businesses into structures that already exist. Quality of life should be considered first and foremost in our communities.