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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

This year will truly be one to remember; not because of any extraordinary achievement, but rather it was a year when the world almost stopped and millions of people died around the world because of COVID-19.

In our country alone, more than 1/4 of a million people have senselessly lost their lives. Every day we are breaking a record for people dying from the coronavirus.

Thanksgiving was celebrated in ways that most of us never imagined. So many families had empty plates at their table representing loved ones that could not come home and loved ones who have passed because of the virus. Unfortunately, some people did not heed the recommendations for gathering on Thanksgiving to keep all of us safe. As we prepare for Christmas, the virus is surging.

Christmas time is supposed to be a season where we celebrate renewed hope and gratitude for all the many gifts and blessings we’ve received. We give thanks for all the people who have blessed our life. The Christmas season is always marked with an energy that is transformative.

This year Christmas is going to be very different. However, we really should take pause and give thanks in the midst of all the suffering and struggle for the countless gifts and blessings each of us have. It’s a time to stay focused and mindful of what we have in this present moment. It’s a time to give not out of our excess but out of our need. It’s a time to welcome the stranger as a friend and brother or sister. It’s a time for making peace, healing fractured relationships and building new bridges that cross over troubled waters.

This Christmas season provides us a powerful opportunity to join hands and give voice to the voiceless, to work for social justice and respect for all God’s people, no matter who they are or where they are. This time of year is an opportunity to support the dignity and respect of every human person.

In the midst of our fear and anxiety, this holiday season is a powerful moment to renew and affirm the people and relationships that are most important in our lives. It’s an opportunity to reach out to those that we’ve become distant from and reconnect.

This Christmas marks my 40th Christmas in Port Jefferson. So much has happened from my first days as a young parish priest at Infant Jesus. My life has been so blessed and enriched by the countless people I have been privileged to know and work with. The collaborative spirit and compassion in our village that transcends religious traditions and socioeconomic profiles has inspired me and helped me to stay the course all these years. The work that I’ve been able to do is in large measure thanks to the generosity and love from so many.

Thousands of broken young men are whole raising their own families, making positive contributions to our larger community and giving back in countless ways. All of that has happened and continues to happen because of your generosity, your courage and your power of example.

This Christmas I am grateful for the countless miracles I have witnessed every day for 40 years and for the collaborative spirit on the part of so many that have contributed to the transformation of so many wounded and broken people. Thank you for helping to renew my hope. I am forever grateful. Christmas blessings!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Stony Brook University Hospital received its first batch of the coronavirus vaccine, helping dozens of frontline workers at the highest risk of exposure.

Kisa King, resident in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the hospital, received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, administered by pharmacist Ian Pak.

King said that she was “honored” to be the first one injected.

“I am so excited and thankful to be a part of the solution,” she added. “Not only does this mean that I can continue delivering care to my patients, but it also means I am providing protection to my family, friends and community.”

On Dec. 15, more than 250 personnel at the hospital working in emergency rooms, critical care units and other high-risk hospital units received the vaccine.

“We’ve been through so much altogether as a community, as a nation, as a world and this is really the first steps towards normalcy,” Pak said. “I think it’s really important for everyone to have hope and be able to look towards the future so that everything we’ve done paid off — not to mention the countless lives that will hopefully be saved by this.”

This major milestone comes after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the first emergency use authorization for a vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19 in individuals 16 years of age and older. The emergency use authorization allows the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed in the U.S. The vaccine has been found to be more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 after two doses.

Pak said he wasn’t expecting that he’d be the first Stony Brook Hospital pharmacist to help out. “It’s just one tiny part of a humongous machine that everyone has contributed to throughout these months,” he said.

From Helper to Patient, Then Back to Helper

Healthcare workers Feliciano Lucuix, Gene Rogers and Carolyn Germaine share their stories of testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this year, saying that their stories should serve as a warning during this second viral wave. Photos from St. Catherine and Mather

Health care professionals often sympathize with their patients, offering support as they deal with painful and difficult symptoms. With COVID-19, some health care professionals in the local area also became patients themselves. Feliciano Lucuix, Gene Rogers, two patient care assistants at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center, and Carolyn Germaine, Director of Nursing for the Transitional Care Unit at Mather Hospital, shared their experiences with TBR News Media.

Feliciano Lucuix

Feliciano Lucuix, whose last name is pronounced like “lou quicks,” battled through COVID-19 in the first few weeks after the pandemic hit Long Island. A patient care assistant at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center, she was in a restroom in March with a COVID-19 patient who vomited on her. Days later, she said she had a high fever and struggled to breathe.

Feliciano Lucuix, a patient care assistant at St. Catherine hospital, was a COVID patient herself earlier this year. Photo from St. Catherine

When her symptoms started, she had a 99.7-degree fever and pain throughout her body. She lost her sense of smell and her fever climbed to 102.8. She took a COVID test, which would take three days to provide results.

Before her diagnosis, she reached a point where she couldn’t tolerate losing her appetite and having her throat “feel like sandpaper,” she said.

Lucuix, who never smoked and practices yoga twice a week and swims, drove herself to the hospital, where she remained for six days, from March 24 through March 30. During that time, her daughter and son couldn’t visit.

Her son called every day and spoke to the nurses. Lucuix said he didn’t believe her when she said she was okay. The son also spoke with the doctor, who said his mother’s condition was improving.

While she endured challenging symptoms and discomfort, she appreciated the help and attention she received.

“Everybody take care of me wonderful,” said Lucuix, who was born in Argentina to an Italian mother and a French father and speaks Spanish, Italian, English and some French.

Even after she left St. Catherine, she couldn’t return to work for 37 days, as she traversed the slow road to recovery.

During Lucuix’s rehabilitation, her son, whose wife had his first child and Lucuix’s fourth grandchild, urged her to consider retiring.

Lucuix couldn’t wait to return to the COVID floor at St. Catherine. She has used her experience to offer patients on her floor empathy and support.

“I tell my patients, I take their hands, I say, ‘Listen, I was in there, too. I know what you’re feeling,’” she said. “I know you’re scared. I know you’re feeling you can die. If I can do it” then the patient can, too.

COVID-19 continued to affect her in other ways, even after her fever broke and she started to recover. Lucuix had headaches and started to lose her hair. She also had trouble sleeping, as viral nightmares interrupted her rest. Her doctor recommended that she speak with a therapist.

“I feel more comfortable every day,” she said.

Lucuix does what she can to protect herself, including taking vitamins, using personal protective equipment and washing her hands regularly.

Lucuix shares her experiences with her coworkers and her patients. She has also donated her antibody-filled plasma twice.

“I donated blood so other people can survive,” Lucuix said. “I’m proud to do that.”

Lucuix’s daughter, who works as a Patient Care Assistant, is following in her footsteps. Her daughter has applied to nursing programs to study to become a registered nurse. Lucuix with her granddaughter about considering the same field.

They would “like her to follow” in their footsteps, Lucuix said.

Lucuix said she is prepared to help patients during the second wave, which started to hit the Long Island community amid the colder weather and as families and friends gather in smaller groups.

“I’m ready to fight again,” Lucuix said. “I want to be strong for my patients, strong for my family.”

Gene Rogers

A patient care assistant at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center, Gene Rogers started to feel ill March 23. He had a 101-degree temperature and was told to take a few days off, drink plenty of fluids, and take Motrin. He locked himself in his room, in case he had COVID, preventing his wife Bethan Walker-Rogers, their 16-year old son Phoenix and 10-year old son Charlie and even his dogs from having any contact with him.

St. Catherine Patient Care Assistant Gene Rogers suffered in th ER during his own bout with COVID. Photo from St. Catherine

Two days later, he was so uncomfortable that he decided he needed to go to the hospital. Walker-Rogers asked if she wanted her to drive him, but he said she should stay home and take care of their younger children. The Rogers also have an older child, Maya, who is 21.

As he drove, Rogers said he felt the car swerving when he passed a police officer.

“I was shocked he didn’t pull me over,” Rogers said.

When he arrived at St. Catherine, his temperature had spiked to 103.8.

Mary Jane Finnegan, Chief Nursing Officer at St. Catherine, offered Rogers reassurance.

“I don’t remember the whole thing about the ER that night,” Rogers said. “I remember [Finnegan] coming over to me and saying, ‘We’re going to take good care of you.’”

Like Lucuix, Rogers had no appetite. He was also having trouble breathing. The nurses kept telling him to lay on his stomach.

He had an odd sensation in his feet and was achy. He was in the hospital for eight days.

Rogers felt that the entire staff lived up to Finnegan’s promise. When he had a fever of 104.1, the nurses put ice packs under his arms.

“I’m putting them at risk while they are taking care of me,” he thought to himself on the bed. “Everyone I see, I try to say, ‘Thank you.’”

Walker-Rogers works in the dietary department at St. Catherine. Even while he was in the hospital, she couldn’t visit. She did walk by and look in the window, but she wasn’t allowed in.

Rogers entered the hospital on March 26 and was discharged April 3.

Although he was eager to return to work, a low-grade fever and, eventually, double pneumonia, kept him out for seven weeks.

Yet again, he isolated from the family and his dogs, who were scratching at the door regularly to see him.

During the worst of his condition, Rogers lost 35 pounds, which, he said, he has since regained.

Rogers added he never considered leaving his profession or St. Catherine.

“The people here are like my second family,” said Rogers, who has been at St. Catherine for 35 years. “I see them more than I see my own family.”

Rogers’s mother, Janice Foote, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, suggested that it might be time to retire or to do something else.

He said he had to return.

“I love my job,” Rogers said. “I enjoy what I do. I couldn’t wait to come back.”

When he started to work, Rogers said he was short of breath from running around.

Recalling the uncertainty and difficulty he and his family faced when he was sick, Rogers said his wife asked him what she’d do if anything happened to him. During the worst of his experience, Rogers said his oldest daughter Maya got so upset that she had to leave and take a walk.

As for how the experience affected him professionally, Rogers said, “you definitely look at it from a different perspective, being in someone else’s shoes.”

Rogers described himself as the type of person who is always asking if a patient needs something else.

“It look at it even more now, after being to that point” with his own illness, Rogers said.

Rogers’s daughter Maya, a junior at St. John’s University in Queens, is following in her parents’ footsteps. A biology major, she aspires to be a physician and is leaning towards emergency medicine.

Carolyn Germaine

Of all the tangible and intangible gifts Carolyn and her husband Malcolm Germaine have exchanged during the over four decades they’ve known each other, this had to be the worst.

Carolyn Germaine, the Director of Nursing for the Transitional Care Unit for Mather, had to make it through high fevers and extreme nausea during her fight with COVID-19. Photo by Stu Vincent/Mather

Director of Nursing for the Transitional Care Unit, Carolyn Germaine contracted COVID-19 in March and, soon thereafter, passed it along to Malcolm.

Her husband was choking at night and, despite being a nurse, Carolyn Germaine felt helpless, particularly in the earlier phases of the disease when health care workers weren’t using steroids that have become a part of more effective treatment.

“I feel terrible he got sick,” Germaine said. “It’s not something you ever want to bring home with you.”

Germaine’s battle with COVID-19 started March 23, when she developed a fever and aches all over her body that felt like every one of her joints had arthritis. By the 26th, she had a positive diagnosis. When she started to feel better, she thought she might return to work.

The next morning, she woke up with a 103-degree fever and, like so many other COVID patients, struggled to catch her breath.

“Nurses are bad patients,” Germaine said. “We think we can manage everything ourselves.”

Nonetheless, by Tuesday, the 31st, she recognized that the oxygen in her blood, which she tested on her own at home, was dropping to the low 90s. She went to the ER, where she convinced her colleagues to let her return home.

Another hospital official called and said, as Germaine recalled, “What are you doing? You need to come back.”

She was admitted on Tuesday evening, where she struggled through the most extreme discomfort she’s ever had. Her nausea, fatigue, and brain fogginess made her so uncomfortable that she asked her doctor to knock her out.

“It’s terrifying because you are isolated, and you want to stay isolated,” Germaine said. She didn’t want any of her friends or staff members to come into the room, where she could expose them to the virus that was challenging her system.

Germaine described the care she received as “exceptional.” The staff at Mather regularly checked in on her, even if it was just from the door. Struggling with thirst, she received numerous drinks at the door.

She knew the staff managed through extreme stress. Even in her brain fog, she could hear all the code blues and rapid response alerts all day.

“I’ve been in the hospital for 33 years and that doesn’t happen,” she said. “If there’s a code blue or rapid response, those are rare occurrences.”

While she was trying to recover in the hospital, Germaine said she was incredibly short of breath, even when she made the short walk from the bed to the chair. She forced herself to go back and forth, which she knew was better than remaining in bed all day.

Germaine vomited so frequently that she lost 15 pounds in the five days she was hospitalized.

“I didn’t think I was ever going to feel better,” said Germaine, who also lost a sense of smell that has only partially returned nine months later.

When she finally left the hospital, it took her five weeks to return to work. Germaine credits her daughter Laura, who lives with Carolyn and Malcom and is a social worker at Northwell, with taking care of her parents. Somehow, despite being around them through the worst of it, Laura, who is hoping for a “normal” wedding next summer, didn’t get sick.

During that period, the Germaine’s first grandchild, Greyson, was born April 12. She and her husband couldn’t visit him in person right away.

An avid walker who runs up and down the stairs at the hospital, Germaine needed a few more months to feel more normal.

She said she has also felt some sense of survivor’s guilt, because she wasn’t able to help out at the hospital when the need was the greatest.

Germaine said the staff has already been dealing with the effects of the second wave.

Within a 90-minute period recently, the hospital had four rapid responses, which means a dramatic change for patients, either because of oxygen levels dropping, a change in mental status, a drop in blood pressure or anything that might require immediate attention.

The rapid response call brings a whole medical team to the bedside.

The hospital would normally have a few of these in a week but having four in 90 minutes is extraordinarily stressful.

“People who don’t work in the field do not understand the amount of stress that the staff is feeling,” Germaine said. “It’s the entire staff. It’s every department that works here. It’s a very unpredictable time.”

Unlike the first wave, when other states sent medical teams to help in Suffolk County, those states are in the midst of their own crises, which means that no help will be coming, she said.

Germaine urged people to wear masks, remain socially distanced and limit any gatherings, even during the holidays.

Despite the anxiety, tension and memory of her own hospitalization, Germaine said she never considered leaving the hospital or her profession.

“Nothing is more satisfying than taking care of patients and helping families,” Germaine said. “You’re made to do it. I can’t imagine not doing it.”

Having the virus affects Germaine’s approach to her job.

“Every personal experience makes you a better nurse,” Germaine said. “You can go to patients and their families from a place of knowledge.”

Patients line up outside the CityMD Urgent Care in Commack. Facilities have seen more patients than usual in recent weeks due to COVID testing. Photo by Lina Weingarten

Over the last few weeks, a popular conversation among residents is the length of the lines outside CityMD Urgent Care walk-in clinics.

Patients wait in line at the CityMD in Lake Grove. Photo by Rita J. Egan

With many seeking COVID-19 tests to spend time with family members over the holidays, for upcoming surgeries or to meet college testing requirements, residents over the last few weeks have seen nearly two dozen or more people standing outside of the urgent care offices, in most cases, socially distanced and wearing masks. Several have commented that they have visited CityMD and have waited for hours in line where patients who are not being tested for COVID, but for other illnesses are also waiting. The urgent care doesn’t bifurcate the line into COVID-related and non-COVID concerns.

One Smithtown woman, who asked not to be named for privacy reasons, said her husband went to one urgent care location for stitches when his hand was bleeding, and he didn’t want to go to a hospital emergency room, not wishing to take away precious time from health care personnel. Once he found out he would have to wait three hours at the urgent care, he wound up going to St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center.

On Sunday, Nesconset resident Mary Jo Orr said she waited in line with her daughter who needed a rapid test because she was starting in a new school. She noticed the line wasn’t that long when they got there at a little before 11 a.m.

“Apparently, early in the morning one of the workers decided to make a list of the first 100 people,” she said. “They were all given a number and were told to wait in their cars and they would be texted when it was their turn.”

However, management squashed the idea and others who didn’t make the list had to stand outside in line.

“We were there for 3 1/2 hours,” Orr said.

She added that she was prepared to wait, even though she wished the visit went quicker. To deal with the cold weather, she and her daughter took turns waiting in their car.

A spokesperson for CityMD said the locations are all walk-ins and do not take appointments, but the company’s goal is to treat as many people as possible. The urgent care centers offer three forms of COVID-19 testing: the rapid test; polymerase chain reaction, most commonly known as PCR test and needs to be sent to a laboratory; and serum antibody IgG blood test.

“Demand for COVID-related visits, including testing, remains consistently high,” the spokesperson said. “This is creating long lines at almost all our 130-plus walk-in CityMD Urgent Care centers, so we ask patients to please plan accordingly.”

Many have asked why CityMD doesn’t split the line into two or allow patients to wait in cars until they are called into the building.

“Wherever possible, our team members walk the lines and triage patients who need to be seen urgently,” the CityMD spokesperson said. “But, there are potential HIPAA issues with asking patients in line to disclose their condition in front of others.”

She added that CityMD is “piloting a queue system with hopes of a broad rollout.”

“Our goal is to see as many patients as we can in the safest way possible — whether it is for typical urgent care needs or for medical evaluation and a COVID-19 test.”

Many community members have said they have gone to Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care centers instead. The locations require an appointment for COVID-testing. Northwell offers both COVID-19 testing and antibody testing.

Dr. Betsy Koickel, associate medical director of Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care, said the appointments for COVID-related visits were necessary so the staff could better prepare for such visits.

“While we always welcome walk-ins for illness and injury care, we require a spot to be saved for COVID-19 testing in our centers so that we can safely prepare for each patient’s visit,” she said. “During the surge in the need for testing, our teams are working diligently to see all ill and injured patients while also increasing availability for COVID testing.”

The doctor said some walk-in patients may have to wait during peak times as staff members are safely preparing rooms. Even though there are no significant lines outside, patients are asked to wear masks while socially distancing or wait in their cars.

Others in the community have also recommended CVS Pharmacy locations and Stony Brook University Hospital’s testing. Both require an appointment and require the patient to fill out an assessment.

Stock Photo

People aren’t just testing positive for COVID-19 during the second wave; they are also entering the hospital and, in some cases, dying.

Suffolk County has reported over 1,000 positive tests in recent days, as area hospitals have seen an increase in patients needing treatment for their COVID symptoms.

Hospitalizations are now at 394 people, with 67 residents in the intensive care unit. Gregson Pigott, Commissioner in the County Department of Health, said about 2/3 of the people admitted to the hospital were over 64.

The number of deaths has also been climbing over the last six weeks. During the entire month of November, 35 people died. In just the first week of December, COVID has contributed to the deaths of 34 people.

Those numbers are up from six in October, 15 in September and five in August.

“We are not even halfway through this month [and the number of deaths] are more than August, September and October combined,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on a conference call with reporters. These figures are a “stark reminder of the danger this virus poses.”

Bellone urged residents to continue to wear masks and remain socially distanced.

Even as the first night of Hannukah, during which some families gather together to celebrate the Festival of Lights, Bellone urged caution amid small gatherings.

The Suffolk County Health Department is monitoring 13 clusters from Thanksgiving or family gatherings, some of which were below the 10-person limit.

A small gathering in East Islip involved five people, who have all tested positive for COVID-19. Another get-together in Manorville resulted in six out of nine people contracting the virus, while another in Southampton triggered seven out of 10 with the virus.

“None of these gatherings violated the state’s limit,” Bellone said. “That doesn’t mean the virus won’t spread.”


Bellone said the county is continuing to expand its testing, which “remains one of our most valuable tools.”

After testing over 2,000 students in Hampton Bays, Riverhead and East Hampton, the county started testing in East Islip on Thursday.

The county is also launching a new testing initiative for first responders. Members of fire, rescue and emergency services and emergency medical service providers will have access to rapid testing at six sites throughout the county. That testing will occur on weekends and will start this Saturday.

The county will also make testing available to county law enforcement and partner agencies.

SCPD Limits

The Suffolk County Police Department has reinstated policies to limit contact for officers. While precincts remain open, the SCPD is encouraging residents to limit visits. The SCPD is also providing limited public access to the lobby at police headquarters in Yaphank.

Residents can file police reports online at www.suffolkpd.org or by phone at (631) 852-COPS.

Crimes residents can report online include harassing communications, lost property, crmiinal mischief, non-criminal property damage, minor motor vehicle crashes, identity theft and some larcenies.

The Pistol Licensing Section will be open for purchase orders and pistol license renewals only.

From left, Private First Class Alex Vroman of the New York Army National Guard and Josh Miller, MD, MPH, Assistant Dean for Clinical Integration and Medical Director of Diabetes Care for Stony Brook Medicine, at the coronavirus testing site on Stony Brook University’s campus, where more 48,000 people were tested from March through July. Photo from SBU

The Thanksgiving COVID-19 numbers are here and they are skyrocketing.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) was joined by health and emergency response officials in a media call Dec. 3 to brief the public on the increase in positive coronavirus tests since the holiday last week.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“We are expecting to see more than 1,100 positive cases in Suffolk County, with a positivity rate of about 6%,” he said. “We have not seen a number of 1,000 cases a day since last April.”

To put it in perspective, Bellone said, Suffolk County was averaging below 200 new cases per day last month. The number has now jumped to nearly 500 positive cases on average per day.

The spike in hospitalizations is also drastic, jumping to 57%. Bellone said that 287 people have been hospitalized — an increase of 21 people. He said 50 of those people are in ICUs.

“That is the highest number since the end of May,” he said. “If we continue with this current pace by Christmas, we’ll have over 1,000 people in the hospitals with COVID-19.”

Bellone noted that at Suffolk County’s peak in the spring, when the region was the epicenter of the virus, there were 1,658 hospitalizations.

Kenneth Kaushansky, Dean of the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, said the number of COVID patients or suspected COVID patients was up to 85.

“Every day for the last week or so, we’ve seen 10 more patients in our hospital,” Kaushansky said on a conference call about vaccinations on Thursday. “It’s coming back at us.”

Kaushansky urged residents to stay away from parties, wash their hands, and to continue wearing masks.

Marilin Dilone, an Emergency Department Nurse at Stony Brook, said the second wave is “slowly happening. We’re seeing it again.”

She anticipates a smooth transition if the numbers continue to rise.

“We know what to expect,” Dilone said.

Dr. Eric Morley, Associate Professor and Clinical Director of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook, described the staff as “battle tested.”

The hospital planned to open the forward triage unit, which the hospital used to separate suspected COVID patients during the first wave of the virus, next week.

On Monday, Mather Hospital President Kenneth Roberts said the hospital was at 64 percent occupancy, so it is “nowhere near capacity.” The hospital also has surge plans in place so that it can accommodate many more than 248 patients.

Robert Collins, a nurse at Mather for the last seven years, said the staff has learned from the difficult experiences through the spring.

“The benefit this go-round is that we’ve done it once,” Collins said. “We’re more familiar with treating it.”

St. Catherine Hospital has 30 COVID positive patients, which is 15% of their inpatient volume, while St. Charles has 11 COVID patients, which is 6.5% of the inpatient volume. Mather is still at 64% occupancy, which is the figure from earlier this week.

“The second wave and the post-Thanksgiving surge we talked about, we warned about, is here,” he said. “Luckily, we’ve taken a proactive approach.”

But Bellone said that although maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask outside is essential to staying safe, small gatherings are becoming the new super spreader.

“Now we know that small gatherings among families and friends have the highest transmission rate of all the events that we’ve seen,” he said. “So I cannot stress enough the concern about small indoor gatherings, where individuals and almost naturally let their guard down a little bit.”

Bellone said that Long Islanders must remain vigilant throughout the upcoming holiday season, while a vaccine is on the horizon.

“It is our actions over the next 30-plus days, that will be critical to our continued recovery,” he said. “That will be key to making sure that we keep our kids in school, keep our schools open, and keep our businesses open.”

He added that two new community-testing sites were launched in Huntington and Patchogue. So far, 349 people have been tested at the Huntington site.

Additional reporting from Daniel Dunaief

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Comsewogue High School. Photo by Deniz Yildirim

Unlike other neighboring districts, Comsewogue is holding off on plans to bring more kids into school until late February or early March, citing the steadily increasing COVID-19 numbers on Long Island. 

Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said the decision was made partially based on a survey released to both parents and students as well as by the reopening committee that comprises staff, parents and students. She said the Suffolk County Department of Health also suggested now was not the best time for bringing in more students. 

“We said since the beginning, our plan is fluid,” she said in a phone interview. The district has changed several things since schools opened in September, including accepting rapid testing where initially the district was wary of the tests’ veracity, bringing back music class, hot lunches and allowing more students to use playground equipment and have more students together during gym. 

In the November survey for district residents, the results of which were posted on its website, Comsewogue got responses from a little under 750 students. Of those, 88% said their mental well-being was average or better, on a scale of 1 to 5. 

As for remote work, survey results show about 40% of students spend more than three hours on remote work a day, while 30% say it’s two-to-three hours, and about a quarter of students said they spend less than that. The vast majority of students said an earlier deadline on remote assignments would not make life easier.

The district said it expects the average remote workload should be between 3.5 and 4.5 hours, excluding AP classes. District officials said the survey results show they are doing the best job they can under the circumstances.

“We don’t want our students staring at the computer screen all day,” said Jennifer Polychronakos, assistant superintendent for instruction. 

A total of 40% of students said they would be comfortable returning to in-person learning without social distancing and masks, while 60% percent said “no” or “not at this time.”

The district also got responses from 160 district parents, of which almost 90% said their children are coping with current learning standards, based on a scale of 1 to 5.

Around 70% of parents said they would not like to see students return to school without masks or social distancing.

Quinn said the question was composed to effectively say the district could not hold students in-person all at once and still maintain social distancing.

Other schools are pushing ahead with reopening plans. The Port Jefferson School District has tentatively set an early January date for bringing students in for four days a week. The Rocky Point school district this week started bringing back students for four days of in-person learning.

At Comsewogue, Quinn said she and other people on the reopening committee are concerned about rising COVID infection rates and hospitalizations. Back in July, New York State set the limit that the infection rate could be at to reopen was 5%. 

The superintendent cited Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who said Sunday, Nov. 29, the U.S. was expecting a difficult Christmas time in terms of both COVID-19 infections and related deaths. 

“The risk of making someone sick is a concern for us right now,” Quinn said. “You listen to Dr. Fauci who said our country might be closed — I want to keep our schools open.”

The district is hosting a board of education workshop Dec. 3 where the superintendent said in a call to parents, they will be discussing what the district will do if the area is designated a yellow zone by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), entailing 20% weekly testing of in-person students and faculty in schools. The next board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 7. 

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Broadway in Rocky Point is just one small main street on Long Island hoping for customers this holiday season. Photo by Kyle Barr

It was a fall shopping season like no other.

One doesn’t have to think too far back to remember the crowds you could practically surf off of during the annual season of Black Friday sales. Not so much this year, as more people stayed home to avoid potentially catching or spreading COVID-19. 

Online sales, however, have jumped tremendously. Amazon’s Prime Day started early in October, and Forbes has reported that original projections for the weekend before Cyber Monday indicated increases of online purchases compared to 2019 from 36 to 50%. Amazon has already said this year’s holiday shopping season has been the biggest in its history, contending that medium to small businesses that sell on Amazon have seen record numbers.

Meanwhile, as much as small brick-and-mortar businesses have been impacted by the ongoing pandemic, we will still have to wait and see how well they did on Small Business Saturday, a shopping holiday promoted by American Express.

Experts, from as close as the Small Business Development Center at Stony Brook University have expressed fear for these small shops, with expectations that close to half of businesses like restaurants could be closed by 2021. 

Alignable, a Boston-based online business referral network, reported Dec. 1 based on a poll of 9,204 small business owners that 48% fear they will not earn enough revenue this month to keep their businesses afloat. 

Main streets all over Long Island have experienced their share of woe, and while some retail owners say times remain tough, others expressed their thanks to customers who went out of their way to patronize their local mom-and-pop.

Feasts for Beasts owner Alan Ghidaleson. Photo by Kyle Barr

Feasts For Beasts

45 Route 25A, Mount Sinai

The pet store and groomer in the small outlet along Route 25A in Mount Sinai normally does not do too much for the Black Friday weekend and doesn’t have many extra sales on top of what they already do. Owner Alan Ghidaleson said things on Small Business Saturday were a bit slow.

“For brick-and-mortars, this is a tough time,” Ghidaleson said. As for the pandemic: “We’re surviving it. I’m not saying it’s easy, but we get by.”

The owner said sales start to lag after Thanksgiving, as they have for the past five years or so. However, he said his business will survive the year, and hopes for better next year.  

Tricia and Stan Niegocki of Niegocki Farms. Photo by Kyle Barr

Niegocki Farms

604 Mount Sinai-Coram Road, Mount Sinai

As the last farm in Mount Sinai, the family owned Niegocki located at the southern corner of Heritage Park has a lot riding on its shoulders as the last holdout of the area’s agricultural charm. 

It’s why co-owner Tricia Niegocki said they have been able to survive the past few months, because of the customers and locals who know and support them. For Thanksgiving, the farm sold turkeys and eggs, though on the whole more people were looking for smaller birds. The farm opened up for tree sales after Thanksgiving, and since then sales have been good.

“We have a lot of locals that love to shop local and support local,” Niegocki said. “Since we’re the last farm here in Mount Sinai, we’ve actually been blessed to have a good past couple of days.” 

She said that because Christmas trees do not have a very large margin, they did not do any sales for Small Business Saturday. Still, things on the farm do not change very much, and while other businesses were forced to close early in the pandemic, Niegocki was considered essential. She said they will be able to maintain over the winter, adding they plan to use their space to host other small shops as a pop-up mall of sorts. They have already hosted two such events over the past year.

“Most of our customers are friends, people who have become friends over the years,” the farmer said. “We are very blessed we have animals that provide us meat and eggs, so that demand will always be there.”

Cat Rosenboom, owner of Rose & Boom in Mount Sinai. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Rose & Boom Boutique

176 N. Country Road #3, Mount Sinai

Cat Rosenboom, owner of Rose & Boom in Mount Sinai and St. James, said that supporting local business is more important than ever.

“I always say to shop small,” she said. “But it’s even more true this year.”

Rosenboom, who has owned the Mount Sinai location for four years this month, opened her second store in St. James nearly six months before the stay-at-home shutdown.

“We had just opened up and then had to close the door once we started to get our name out there,” she said. 

But despite the coronavirus crisis, she said people were shopping and supporting her stores throughout the whole pandemic, by purchasing things online through her social media accounts and delivering them personally to customers close by.

“You get a personal experience here that you won’t get at a big box store,” she said. “We take pride in getting to know our customers and their families.”

She also will host local retailer pop-ups to support fellow small business owners.

“We like to help local retailers and get the word out about their business,” she said. 

Leading up to Black Friday, the shops did daily surprise sales every day in hopes to bring people in – and it worked. “We allowed 10 people in the stores at a time, and they were busy the entire day,” she said. 

— Julianne Mosher

Merrily Couture in Mount Sinai. Photo from Google Maps

Merrily Couture

340 Route 25A, Mount Sinai

Manager of the Mount Sinai formal wear shop, Krystle Weber Hughes, said times have been tough since the start of the pandemic, as so much of their business depends on formal occasions. Their stellar event, school prom, was largely canceled by every school district in the local area. They were closed during the pandemic’s height, and all their shipments were delayed. To this day they are receiving items they ordered all the way back in January.

The store doesn’t have too many discounts around the time of Black Friday, but Weber Hughes said COVID has meant they have had to clean dressing rooms every time one is used, and they have to manage their space to make sure people are socially distanced.

She said they have received some returning customers, while others are somewhat hesitant to buy anything too early before an event that may well be canceled.

“Everything really got turned upside down because of COVID,” she said. “I think people are so afraid of events being cancelled, they’re waiting until the last minute to purchase a dress.”

Weber Hughes said they are waiting for January to see how things are, as that is when their prom season starts. Once that comes around, she said they will likely know how good the year will be.

Marion Bernholz, center, the owner of The Gift Corner. Photo by Kyle Barr

The Gift Corner

157 N. Country Road, Mount Sinai

Marion Bernholz, owner of The Gift Corner in Mount Sinai, has seen the impact a loyal customer base can have on a small shop for getting through a tough time.

TBR News Media has talked to Bernholz every Small Business Saturday for the past three years, and each time she has said it’s the customers who look at her as a friend and neighbor who help her survive in a time of booming online retail.

“We have been doing OK,” Bernholz said. “People have come up to me in Stop & Shop and asked if I worked at the store. They asked me, ‘Are you doing OK?’” 

But it seems word of mouth has worked for her. She said they have been receiving a host of new customers, adding that she estimates they had been ringing up 20 new customers a day from people coming to the North Shore during the summer and fall, many of whom were not able to take their usual vacations.

Tristan Whitworth, the owner of Game On in Miller Place and Smithtown

Game On

465 Route 25A, Miller Place

Tristan Whitworth, the owner of Game On, a used and refurbished video game and console retailer with locations in Miller Place and Smithtown, said he has been doing 200% to 300% better than last year, both in terms of sales and customers, which is something that to him was concerning considering just how hard it has been for so many other businesses out there. 

When businesses were forced to close, Whitworth and his business partner each came to the separate stores on the North Shore and sold some of their product online, which kept things moving.

“We’re very blessed,” he said. “We were profitable during that phase, too, while other stores couldn’t. For example, you couldn’t do anything for a nail salon. … It’s a weird feeling to have so many places struggle and then us flourish. We didn’t do anything different, we just got lucky.” 

Whitworth hosted two $1,500 giveaways to two local businesses this year. 

While Whitworth did a host of sales during last year’s Small Business Saturday, this year he tried to make it more subdued to make sure there weren’t too many people crowded close together in his store. Still, there was a steady stream of people coming into the store all day Saturday.

“We’re lucky, we sell things people really, really want right now during a pandemic when they stay home, so we really didn’t push it this year,” he said. “I didn’t want people thinking they need to come support us, because there are a lot of stores that are really actually struggling.”

Jim Donnelly, the owner of Grand Slam Tennis in Miller Place. and Commack. Photo by Kyle Barr

Grand Slam Tennis

816 Route 25A, Miller Place

Jim Donnelly, the owner of Grand Slam Tennis in Miller Place, with his main store in Commack, said his prospects for year to year are much different as a specialty shop. Small Business Saturday normally has no effect on him.

“People that enjoy specialty stores, and have all the information, they constantly come to us, we don’t have to advertise or anything,” Donnelly said. “They’re our advertisement.”

The biggest problem for him and his shop was when different municipalities closed tennis courts all over Long Island, despite the argument that tennis is one of the safer sports one could play during a pandemic, as by necessity players are well distanced. The tennis store owner said he and other tennis advocates got together to put a paper on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) desk arguing for tennis to be permitted, and was shortly thereafter allowed along with sports like golf. 

“We had a good summer — I hate to brag — I’m just glad I was in the right business for a pandemic, because I would hate to be the rest of these guys,” he said.

Jim and Sue Fiora, along with Misty the dog. Photo by Kyle Barr

Miller Place Bait and Tackle

834 Route 25A, Miller Place

The fishing business had some interesting ups and downs this year, according to Miller Place Bait and Tackle owners Jim and Sue Flora. Their store had to close along with many others for several months, but once they opened they found many people who had never tried fishing before were buying rods and bait. It was one of the few activities still available to people during the height of COVID.

“It’s been a good season for us because everybody went fishing,” Sue Flora said. “So many people come in saying, ‘I want to learn to fish.’ It was very good for us. They supported us through it.”

She said customers were coming into the shop on Saturday to buy products or even gift cards, specifically to support them. 

“We have a nice bunch of loyal customers — we’re really fortunate,” she said.

Jim Flora said they were doing slightly better than last year, and should be in a relatively safe place going into next year.

Flowers on Broadway owner Stephanie Navas. Photo by Kyle Barr

Flowers on Broadway

43 Broadway, Rocky Point

April was supposed to be Rocky Point flower shop Flowers on Broadway’s 20-year anniversary celebration. Owner Stephanie Navas said they are still somewhat struggling as so many weddings are still on hold while big events, which usually means big sales for florists, are much more subdued.

They have had more to do with funeral work but, despite the morbid implication, even those sales are down compared to previous years, as more funerals have become much smaller events.

“Walk-in traffic isn’t anything like it used to be,” Navas said. “We are doing more home deliveries then we did in the past, but it doesn’t quite balance out.”

While she expected to see some more traffic for Thanksgiving, especially considering more people weren’t traveling, they didn’t see too big a jump in sales. Black Friday, on the other hand, is the “absolute worst” day to be open. This year she said they made little to nothing on the biggest shopping holiday of the year. Saturday did get slightly better, and now Flowers on Broadway is trying to start its big Christmas push. 

Still, she said she’s not ready to throw in
the towel. 

“My hope is just to do as well as last year,” she said. “I’m not hoping for an increase, I’m just looking to maintain at this point.”

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Other Nearby Districts Revise Protocols/Quarantine Students

Rocky Point High School. File photo by Giselle Barkley

Rocky Point schools have moved to keep students for in-person learning four days a week.

Starting Nov. 30, Rocky Point middle and high school students are to go to school Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday remaining as a dedicated virtual day.

The decision to push this part of the reopening plan to after Thanksgiving was made earlier this month, Nov. 4, according to a letter to parents signed by Superintendent Scott O’Brien.

“What is most important is that any change we make is done carefully, and with health and safety at the forefront,” O’Brien wrote in his letter.

The live-streaming component of what the district called “Phase II” began Nov. 9 to log into a period-by-period class schedule.

Those students who are switching to virtual from in-person learning, or vice versa, also have a start date of Nov. 30.

“With a recent increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in our district and the surrounding area, it was necessary to reallocate our transitional resources to address cleaning and disinfecting due to recent positive cases,” O’Brien wrote in his letter.

Since September, Rocky Point has seen 25 students test positive for the coronavirus while nine staff/teachers also tested positive as of Nov. 30, according to the state’s COVID Report Card.

Other neighboring districts have similar rates of infection, with school districts overall having much lower infection rates than the general populace. Shoreham-Wading River, with its plan of having students in school five days a week resulting in an infection rate of 1%, that currently being 22 students and six staff members.

The SWR district did have to close the high school and quarantine over 100 students and several staff members a month ago after two students who allegedly attended some kind of social gathering tested positive.

Still, Superintendent Gerard Poole said in a letter posted to the district website that they have revised protocols so that schools will not be closed the day a positive case is reported if contact tracing can be performed in time, along with the needed cleaning and disinfecting.

“The intent of this revision is to reduce the number of school closures,” Poole wrote. “Please know that the decision to keep a school open, as opposed to closing for a day, will always be made carefully with the health and safety of our students and staff as the priority.”

Meanwhile in Miller Place, the district said Monday the district contact traced three Miller Place High School students, one North Country Road Middle School student and one staff member from there who have all tested positive for COVID-19. None were symptomatic when last in school, and all have since been quarantined.

Miller Place Superintendent Marianne Cartisano said in a letter posted to the district website that the positive cases were relayed to the district through the Safe School Helpline.

“We have also been working with multiple staff members and community families who have been identified as close contacts of persons testing positive for COVID-19,” she wrote. “If required, staff have been quarantined as close contacts.”

Suffolk County officials said we are certainly in the midst of the pandemic's second wave. Stock photo

Responding to numerous 911 calls on Monday, Nov. 30, just after midnight, the Suffolk County Police Department arrived at 51 Hawkins Lane in Brookhaven to find an estimated 300 to 400 people arriving for a party.

Police said it took about four hours to break up a gathering that was just getting started. The owner of the 5,000 square foot property, which is listed on Air BNB for $399 per night, was one of the people who called the police.

SCPD Chief Stuart Cameron said the people who rented the house who officials believe came from New Jersey would face civil fines of up to $15,000 and criminal charges that include criminal nuisance in the second degree and section 12-B of the public health law, which are the sections the police have been using for COVID-19-related enforcement.

The “prompt response” by the police and the “effective dispersion of the crowd” enabled the police to avert a “potential supers spreader event,” Cameron said on a call with the media run by County Executive Steve Bellone (D).

“We have gotten significant cooperation from the homeowner,” Bellone said on the conference call. “When they found that the home was being used for this purpose, they did report that. We will be holding accountable the people who did hold this party.”

Bellone cautioned anyone who might consider coming in to Suffolk County from out of town that they will not be allowed to skirt COVID-19 public health rules.

“Renting a home and thinking you will be able to get away with that … that’s not going to happen,” Bellone said. “We’ve worked too hard to allow selfish and reckless individuals to set back our efforts to continue to protect people’s health.”

Bellone thanked the SCPD for their efforts.

Bellone urged people to continue to follow public health guidelines, particularly as the holidays approach. He said there was hope on the horizon with a vaccine and that there is an “end in sight. We need to do the best we can to follow the guidance so we can contain this second wave.”

Across the county, Chief Cameron described the number of 911 calls over Thanksgiving as a “handful,” which was below his expectations. In the cases when the police did arrive at a home, they didn’t notice “any gross deviations,” which the police chief described as a “testament to the people of Suffolk County.”

A Tough Beginning

As for the number of positive tests, the trend continues to provide warning signs to area officials about the return of the spread of a virus the county had originally beat back earlier this year.

Positive tests for COVID-19 stood at 5.2% as of Dec. 1, with 609 new cases in the previous day. The county hasn’t had a rate above five percent since May 17.

Hospitalizations now stand at 248, which is the highest since June 3.

“Those numbers are alarming to say the least,” Bellone said. “There’s no doubt we are in that second wave we talked about for so long.”

The county and state will now incorporate hospital capacity into cluster zone designations in determining yellow, orange and red levels.

As of the beginning of this month, 28% of hospital beds were available, with 32% of intensive care unit beds available.

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has indicated that hospitals in the state need to prepare for surges by identifying doctors and nurses, preparing field hospitals and planning for “all the things we did in the spring,” Bellone said.

Bellone reinforced a message about schools he’s been sharing for several weeks, even as positive cases continue to increase. The county executive said Suffolk is not seeing the spread happening in schools in any significant level.

“Keeping our schools open is critical for students, families and for our continued economic recovery,” Bellone said.

Bellone reminded residents that the majority of new cases seem to be coming from small gatherings, where family and friends who feel safer with each other are congregating, often without masks and, at times, within six feet of each other.

“It is critically important that people limit those gatherings,” Bellone said.

The county continues to rely on contact tracing to try to limit the spread of the virus. On the first of November, the county had 30 people in place who were contact tracing, reflecting the smaller number of positive tests. Now, the county has over 200 contact tracers, who are reaching out to positive cases to connect with those who might have been exposed to the virus.

In the last two weeks, the county had 7,948 confirmed cases. Contact tracers reached 6,114 people, with 3,801 of those providing contacts, which represents less than half the total.

Dr. Shahida Iftikhar, deputy commissioner for the Department of Health, said the number of people who didn’t provide contacts included those who weren’t within six feet for 10 minutes or more of other people.