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Covid 19

Two friends on the staff of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport are engaged in a poetry-photo challenge. Their goal is to lift the spirits of their quarantined colleagues.

Ed Clampitt has been a member of the Museum’s security staff for four years. He challenged Ellen Mason, a volunteer tour guide for 14 years, to write poems inspired by his photos. Clampitt, who also has written some of the poems, likes to record seasonal beauty at Eagle’s Nest, the spectacular 43-acre Vanderbilt Estate that is also home to the Vanderbilt Museum and Reichert Planetarium.

Ellen Mason

“During discussions about our upcoming children’s book, Ellen discovered her previously untapped talent for writing poetry,” Clampitt said. “I enjoy being her muse and inspiring that wonderful talent to blossom!”

Mason said, “Ed suggested that he take photographs at the Vanderbilt and challenged me to write poems to correspond to them. He surprises me with the photos and gives me no prior information. And I surprise him with the poems.”

Then the creative partners email the results to the Vanderbilt staff and members of the Board of Trustees. Their responses: delight and gratitude.

“It’s such a pleasure to receive their poems and photos,” said Elizabeth Wayland-Morgan, the Vanderbilt Museum’s interim executive director. “Ed and Ellen’s creations remind us of how lucky we are to work in such beautiful surroundings, especially now when we cannot physically be at Eagle’s Nest. Their pictures and words are inspiring.”

Ed Clamplitt

Clampitt, a Huntington resident who also has worked for Stop & Shop supermarkets for 40 years, is a front-line worker during the COVID-19 pandemic. He is also co-creator and author of Team Dawg, a character-education program and children’s book series that has been widely used in elementary schools throughout Long Island.

Mason, a Stony Brook resident and retired Centereach High School English teacher, leads tours of the Vanderbilt Mansion. She tells visitors stories about the Vanderbilt family and provides details on the Mansion’s architecture and centuries-old art and furnishings. During summer Living History tours, she and the guides dress in 1930s costumes to portray famous summer guests of Rosamond and William K. Vanderbilt II.

Here are two of Mason’s poems and one by Clampitt, with four of Clampitt’s photos taken on the Vanderbilt Estate:

Separation

By Ellen Mason

Wrought iron gates / Now closed to us;

No sound of car / Or van or bus.

 No children shout /Or laughter rings

Amid the trees /Where birds still sing.

The empty paths / And courtyard bare

Of visitors /A sight so rare.

A vista /Just around the bend,

Might give us hope / And chance to mend.

To breathe the air / At Eagle’s Nest,

Would lend our hearts / And souls some rest.

The day will come / When we’ll return,

To hug and share / Our lessons learned.

We’ll walk the paths / Blue sky above,

And celebrate / This place we love.

Night in the Museum

By Ellen Mason

The grounds are dark, /And silence reigns;

No traffic noise / On roads or lanes.

No human sounds /Disturb the night,

As paths are bathed /In pale starlight.

Within the hushed /Exhibit halls,

Some species stir /On floors and walls.

With restlessness, /They shift and shake,

And move their eyes, /And try to make

Some sense of what / Has come to pass:

No students here / With friends and class,

In lines of two, / With cell phones poised,

They used to laugh /And make loud noise

Where are the folks, / The steady band,

Who climb the stairs / With map in hand?

The whale shark swings / Both to and fro,

To catch the sight: / No one below.

The polar bear, / Now wide awake,

Believes there must be / Some mistake.

In the museum, / High on the hill,

In quiet rooms, / Alone and still,

The sharks, the eels, / The manatee,

Hang, waiting for /Humanity

Their vigil here, /Throughout the night,

Continues on / In morning light.

And so they wait, / And hope to learn,

Why we were gone, / When we return.

The Plan

By Ed Clampitt

 She’s still hard at work, / Preparing this place,

For the day coming soon, / When we meet face to face.

Each day brings new changes, /Some larger, some small,

She knows in her heart, /We feel blessed by them all.

Mother Nature the Wonder /Signs of hope that abound,

Just trust in her plan / What’s been lost will be found.

Dr. Anthony Fauci

By Peggy Olness

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” said our NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. This simple but important statement has re-emerged in this unusual era as a call for truth, and can sometimes be the difference between life and death. Being informed is every citizen’s responsibility, whether making sense of a cacophony of voices during a pandemic or ultimately choosing leaders on election day. Use this time of enforced and prudent social distancing to educate yourself on how to separate fact from opinion and fiction. 

Over 100 doctors and nurses serving on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic recently sent a letter to the largest social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Google, & YouTube, warning that misleading information about COVID-19 is threatening lives. The letter called on these organizations to more aggressively monitor the posting of medical misinformation appearing on their websites.

Misinformation about COVID-19 includes unfounded claims and conspiracy theories about the virus originating as biological weapon development and being deliberately spread by various groups or countries. Even more dangerous have been the unsubstantiated claims for “sure cures” that involve certain types of therapies or treatments with substances, many of which are poisonous or which must be monitored by a medical professional. There have been documented instances of people dying or suffering serious harm as a result of following this misinformed advice.

For COVID-19 information dependable places to start are the websites of the CDC and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was created by Congress in 1946 to focus on infectious disease and food borne pathogens. It functions under the US Public Health Service (PHS) to provide leadership and assistance for epidemics, disasters and general public health services. It is responsible for the Strategic National Stockpile, a stockpile of drugs, vaccines, and other medical products and supplies to provide for the emergency health security of the US & its territories.

Also under the PHS are the National Institutes for Health (NIH), responsible for basic and applied research for biomedical and public health, founded in the 1880’s to investigate the causes of malaria, cholera and yellow fever epidemics. A subagency, of the NIH, the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is the lead agency studying the nature of the coronavirus and its treatment and prevention. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, M.D, NIAID Director since 1984, has helped NIAID lead the US through a number of crises including HIV-AIDS, Ebola, West Nile Virus, SARS, H1N1 flu, MERS-CoV, Zika and COVID-19. Dr Fauci has been trying to communicate the facts his agency has discovered about coronavirus and COVID-19. Scientists are seekers of findings that can be replicated, and their research is constantly being updated, revised, communicated, and it is collaborative and open. 

Misinformation and rumor have always been a part of society, and the children’s game of “Telephone” has been used for generations to show how factual information can become changed or distorted when it is passed down a line of people. So what can we do about it? Before making decisions about action, be sure that the information and sources that are guiding you are reliable and trusted. During this COVID-19 crisis, actions taken by those around you can have negative consequences. Remember to use social media with an emphasis on “social;” your source for facts and your basis for decisions should be well-documented media/journalism and peer-reviewed science. Be sure, as President Reagan advised, you have trusted but also verified.  

The Suffolk Cooperative Library System, with the assistance of the Suffolk County League of Women Voters and building on the work of the Westchester LWV, has produced a 10 minute professional development video: “INFODEMIC 101: Inoculating Against Coronavirus Misinformation” which can be found on the Livebrary YouTube channel https://youtu.be/7qmy3FaCjHU

Peggy Olness is a board member of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit http://www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email [email protected] or call 631-862-6860.

Amazing Olive in Port Jefferson village is just one of many businesses which has turned to online orders as nonessential shops have been closed. Photo by Kyle Barr

After the pandemic caused New York state and Long Island to shutter businesses for months, Long Island moved within two days of entering phase one of reopening.

Hospitalizations continued to fall, with the number of beds occupied with COVID-19 patients dropping 31 to 343 in the period ending on May 23rd, the most recent date for which the county had figures. The number of people in Intensive Care Units battling the virus also declined, by eight to 111.

In the last day, an additional 18 new cases of residents with COVID-19 have required hospitalization.

At the same time, 38 people have left the hospital in the last day, continuing their recovery at home.

An additional six people died in the last day from complications related to the virus, raising the total in Suffolk County to 1,840.

Patients with COVID represented 64 percent of total hospital bed occupancy and 61 percent of ICU bed use, well below the 70 percent required for reopening.

“We are looking forward to hitting that first phase this Wednesday,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on his daily conference call with reporters.

So far, the attendance at the newly opened beaches has been light due to the weather during the three-day weekend.

“We are determined to make sure families and kids will enjoy a summer, even in the midst of this global pandemic,” Bellone said. “We believe we can do this safely.”

Bellone was also pleased that the area was able to hold a Memorial Day ceremony at the American Legion Post in Patchogue. The ceremony, which didn’t include the typical parades and moments to honor the service men and women who died for their country, was streamed live on FaceBook.

Bellone was especially eager to recognize the fallen service men and women this year, on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.

“It was a pleasure to be there with all my colleagues, democrats and republicans,” Bellone said which included Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1), who, is a U.S. Army Veteran and also spoke at Calverton National Cemetery. “It is a time for all of us to be reminded of the fact that what unites us is so much more important than petty disagreements.”

Bellone added that, “we are all Americans and we are all in this together.”

Separately, as the county and Long Island prepare to enter Phase One of a reopening plan, officials cautioned residents to continue to practice social distancing and to wear masks when they can’t remain at least six feet away from others.

Suffolk County Police Chief Stuart Cameron said he was in his office today, on Memorial Day, to continue to prepare enforcement plans for the area.

“I’m not certain how people are going to react,” Cameron said on the call with reporters. “I hope they are going to react with good judgment. We are prepared to act if necessary.”

Cameron added that the police department has been successful in educating people and asking for their compliance. He said officers have been able to convince residents and business owners to continue to follow guidelines that protect public health.

“If necessary, we will move to an enforcement phase,” Cameron said. The SCPD has issued summonses to a few businesses and to individuals.

Stock photo

Reacting to a stirring front page of the New York Times that included the names of people felled by COVID-19 the day before Memorial Day, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) took stock of all the county has lost, and protected.

The New York Times is a “reminder, when you look at it, of the fact that these are not just statistics we are reporting every day,” Bellone said on his daily call with reporters. The losses families, friends and caretakers have felt these losses keenly each day, causing an untold impact on the county, the state and the country.

Amid all the death and loss, Bellone said he takes comfort in the way Long Islanders have abided by social distancing and face covering restrictions, which has kept the unimaginably high death toll in the county — which increased another 12 to 1,834 over the last day — from being even higher.

“Thousands of people are alive today because of the extraordinary efforts” of everyone from first responders to business owners who have closed up their shops to reduce the spread of the virus.

Bellone urged residents to “continue to be smart.”

Bellone cited an incident in Patchogue at Dublin Deck on Friday night that included numerous videos of people crowding around a bar in clear violation of social distancing rules.

The owners of Dublin Deck have apologized on their Facebook page, saying said they had invited people in because of the rain. They acknowledged they were wrong and that it will not happen again.

“What we saw in those videos is unacceptable and not smart,” Bellone said. “Police are aware of that and will continue to follow up.”

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart explained that the owners were vocal and apologetic and that 85 precent of the patrons had cleared out by the time the police arrived. An officer stayed at the location until everybody had cleared and responded at other times to make sure it was in compliance.

Dublin Deck posted an apology to its social media site and indicated “there are no excuses when it comes to public safety.”

As for the viral figures in the county, the number of people who tested positive in the county in the last day were 162, bringing the total to 38,964. That figure excludes the 12,272 who tested positive on an antibody test.

Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 fell by 35 through May 22 to 374. That is the first time since Marcy 27 that total hospitalizations were below 400.

The number of people in Intensive Care Unit beds declined by six to 119.

With 3,031 total hospital beds, the number of available beds was 1,041, which keeps the county on track to start opening on Wednesday. Similarly, with 230 ICU beds available from a total of 595, the number of beds occupied with COVID-19 patients is below the 70 percent maximum.

Over the last day, 45 people have been discharged from the hospital.

The county executive said four sites would be reopening for residents to purchase green key cards. The cost of the cards is $30 and they are valid for three years. The sites are at the east booth at Smith Point Park, at Indian Island County Park in Riverheads, at Blydenburgh County Park in Smithtown and at Sears Bellows County Park at Hampton Bays.

Bellone urged residents to practice social distancing at these sites and to wear face coverings.

Matthew Lerner. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Though hampered by the pandemic in their direct contact with people who have autism, the founder of The Autism Initiative and research director Matthew Lerner along with the Head of Autism Clinical Education Jennifer Keluskar at Stony Brook University are managing to continue to reach out to members of the community through remote efforts. In a two-part series, Times Beacon Record News Media will feature Lerner’s efforts this week and Keluskar’s work next week.

Through several approaches, including improvisational theater, Matthew Lerner works with people who are on and off the autism spectrum on ways to improve social competence, including by being flexible in their approach to life.

In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, he has had to apply the same approach to his own work.

Lerner, who is an Associate Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry & Pediatrics in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, recognizes that it’s difficult to continue a project called SENSE ® Theatre (for Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology), where the whole function of the process is to provide in-person social intervention.

The SENSE Theater study is a multisite National Institute of Mental Health-funded project focused on assessing and improving interventions to improve social competence among adolescents with autism. The core involves in person intervention through group social interaction.

Matthew Lerner with his sons Everett,6, and Sawyer,2. Photo by Chelsea Finn

That, however, is not where the effort ends.“There are arms of that study that are more educational and didactic,” Lerner said. “We’re starting to think about how we could capitalize on that.”

In the ongoing SENSE effort, Lerner is coordinating with Vanderbilt University, which is the lead site for the study, and the University of Alabama.

Stony Brook is in active contact with the families who are participating in that effort, making sure they know “we are doing our best to get things up and running as quickly as possible,” Lerner said.

The staff is reaching out to local school districts as well, including the Three Village School District, with whom Lerner is collaborating on the project, to ensure that people know the effort will restart as soon as it’s “safe to be together again.”

Lerner is also the founder and Research Director of The Autism Initiative at SBU, which launched last year before the pandemic altered the possibilities for in-person contact and forced many people to remain at or close to home for much of the time. The initiative provides programs and services for the community to support research, social and recreational activities and other therapeutic efforts.

The Stony Brook effort initially involved video game nights, adult socials and book clubs. The organizers and participants in the initiative, however, have “stepped up in a huge way and have created, in a couple of weeks, an entirely new set of programming,” Lerner said.

This includes a homework support club, guidance, webinars and support from clinicians for parents, which address fundamental questions about how to support and adapt programs for people with autism. The group is keeping the book club active. The initiative at least doubled if not tripled the number of offerings, Lerner suggested.

Additionally, SBU has two grants to study a single session intervention adapted for teens with autism. The project has been running for about nine months. Lerner said they are looking to adapt it for online applications. For many families, such remote therapy would be a “real boon to have access to free treatment remotely,” he said.

Lerner had been preparing to conduct a study of social connections versus loneliness in teens or young adults with autism. Since COVID-19 hit, “we have reformulated that and are just about to launch” a longitudinal a study that explores the effects of the lockdown on well-being and stress for people who have autism and their families.

Lerner is looking at how the pandemic has enhanced the importance of resilience. He said these kinds of studies can perhaps “give us some insight when we return to something like normalcy about how to best help and support” people in the autism community. “We can learn” from the stresses for the community of people with autism during the pandemic.

To be sure, the pandemic and the lockdown through New York Pause that followed hasn’t affected the entire community of people with autism the same way. Indeed, for some people, the new norms are more consistent with their behavioral patterns.  “Some autistic teens and young adults have said things to me like, ‘I was social distancing before it was cool,’” Lerner said.

Another teenager Lerner interacted with regularly went to the bathroom several times to wash his hands. When Lerner checked in on him to see how he was doing amid the pandemic, he said, “I was made for this.”

Lerner also said people who aren’t on the spectrum may also gain greater empathy through the changes and challenges of their new routines. People find the zoom calls that involve looking at boxes of people on a full screen exhausting. After hours of shifting our attention from one box to another, some people develop “zoom fatigue.”

Lerner said someone with autism noted that this experience “may be giving the rest of us a taste of what it’s like for folks on the spectrum,” which could provide insights “we might not otherwise have.”

Even though some people with autism may feel like the rest of the world is mirroring their behavioral patterns, many people in and outside the autism community have struggled with the stresses of the public health crisis and with the interruption in the familiar structure of life.

The loss of that structure for many with autism is “really profound,” which is the much more frequent response, Lerner said. “More kids are telling us they are stressed out, while parents are saying the same thing.” In some sense, the crisis has revealed the urgency of work in the mental health field for people who are on and off the spectrum, Lerner said.

The studies in autism and other mental health fields that come out of an analysis of the challenges people face and the possible mental health solutions will likely include the equivalent of an asterisk, to capture a modern reality that differs so markedly from conditions prior to the pandemic. There may be a new reporting requirement in which researchers break down their studies by gender, age, race, ethnicity, income and “another variable we put in there: recruited during social isolation.”

A May 21 car parade was as classic as it gets.

Classic car owners from various clubs on Long Island came together to drive pass Huntington Hospital to show their gratitude for health care workers battling COVID-19. Hospital employees and neighbors had the chance to see scores of classic cars going pass the facility located on Park Avenue.

Before the parade, the car owners met at Mill Dam Park at 6 p.m. where the drivers donated food to Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares. Approximately, 1,000 pounds of food and $680 in funding was collected for the nonprofit that provides food for local residents experiencing food insecurity.

Organizations involved in the parade included Vintage Chevrolet Club of America, Mopar Club of Long Island, Classic Car Club of America, Long Island Corvette Owners Association, Mustang Shelby Club of Long Island, Model A Ford Club of Long Island, Long Island Street Rods, Antique Automobile Club of Long Island, Thunderbird Club of Long Island and Cap-A-Radiator Co.

Also on hand May 21 were residents who every day at 6:45 p.m. show up at the hospital entrance to cheer for the health care workers around the time shifts change.

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The lot north of Arden Place is being studied to see if it can be modified to increase the number of stalls. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though the building that once housed the Gap in Port Jefferson remains an empty shell, village officials say they want to look at the surrounding parking lot to see if better use can be made of the space.

The current lot right off of Arden Place and East Broadway curves and ducks behind many prominent storefronts, and on the busy days is one of the first lots filled come peak business time.

The village voted unanimously to hire Hauppauge-based VHB Engineering for $18,700 to study the lot as well as create conceptual plans for a “multi-deck” parking structure.

Though the difficulties of creating anything in that lot are easily apparent. 

“The Gap lot is not a square box, it’s a very unusual layout,” Mayor Margot Garant said. “The property has so many constraints, so it’s going to be difficult.”

In case of a kind of parking garage, Garant said the scope of the work will reveal whether or not the space could maintain a structure based on its unusual shape, even something as high as two levels.

“We can’t rule that out until we know that,” she said. “Then I get to cross that off my list, and then we can look at reconfiguring that lot in place and just see if reconfiguring it surface only can I gain [more] spots.”

Trustee Bruce Miller, who in the past has opposed any mention of multi-level parking structures, again shared his disapproval.

“I’m on the record [that] I’m against any kind of multi level parking garage,” he said.

Other Ongoing Initiatives in Port Jeff

• Port Jeff officials approved accepting the bid of Long Island-based D&B Engineering to replace and repair the retaining walls both at East Beach and along Highland Boulevard for a cost of $41,500.

• Port Jefferson completed an $8,000 project for drainage installations in Upper Port in anticipation of the installation of Station Street, which would connect Main Street and Oakland Ave to avoid the parking lot. That project starting up depends on when current slated apartments by Conifer Realty LLC, a real estate development firm with projects across New York State and south into Maryland, for “affordable” apartments in what was once the Bada Bing structure.

• The village is not giving up hope of having fireworks this year, but whether it will take place July 4, as normal, or at a later date is to be determined. At its May 18 meeting the village voted to enter into agreement with Fireworks by Grucci for a total of $20,000. While the board does not know if the village will do its usual beach display the 4th of July, trustees like Bruce D’Abramo pointed out current limitations on gatherings would mean there likely won’t be a show two months from now unless something changes. The board reserved the ability to host a fireworks show sometime this year, with village attorney Brian Egan saying their permits would likely allow it.

• The village posted a notice to its website Sunday, May 17 hastily sharing the laws regarding selling alcohol outside windows, as some shops were doing that weekend. Takeaway cocktails must be in an enclosed container, not have a straw inside the cup and must come with food to comply with New York State law. Garant asked police 6th precinct for two officers to be in the village to enforce guidelines next weekend. The mayor added she has spoken with some businesses such as Old Field and Ruvo East or in Chandler Square for shared outdoor dining. She added the village would waive all outdoor dining fees except for the application fee.

Heritage Center at Heritage Park is used by the trust for its events. Photo by Kyle Barr

During the spring and summer seasons, the community center at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai would see an abundance of residents stopping in to take a break from the park or to join in the plethora of events held there. That all changed with COVID-19, and with no indication on when it can reopen, members of nonprofit Heritage Trust, which oversees the park, say they may need to reinvent themselves in order for them and the center to survive. 

Victoria Hazan, president of the organization, said right now is usually their busy season at the community center. They would normally have a number of classes, events, parties and receptions held in the building. 

People of all ages enjoy Heritage Park for its sizable number of amenities. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We usually have tons of things going on during the week, there’s Zumba, country line dancing, cooking classes, the local church and civic association use the space as well,” she said. “Before COVID-19 we were booked solid through next April.” 

Renting out the community center space is a major revenue source for nonprofit and it helps pay for other expenses. Without that option, it will be tougher to be able to pay for rent and insurance payments. 

Since closing in March, the organization has refunded deposits back to planned renters. 

“Those issues just don’t go away, our insurance on the building is extremely high,” Hazan said. 

The organization was able to get a three-month deferment of its mortgage payments, but that ends in July. 

Another funding avenue that the organization relies on is their regular fundraising events. This year they were unable to put on the annual spring carnival, one of the park’s main fundraising sources. That revenue from the carnival helps them host other events including the Christmas tree lighting and Halloween festival. 

Given the financial strains from COVID-19, the nonprofit may be forced to change how it operates. This year, the trust was planning to celebrate its 20th anniversary since its inception.

Lori Baldassare, the founding director of the organization, said they have looked at consolidating with other local nonprofits, as well as combining resources and staff. They have talked to North Shore Youth Council about possibly sharing some of the community center space. 

In addition, members are still trying to find creative ways to host some type of events for the time being. One idea would be a drive-in movie night or a virtual fundraising concert held at the community center, where only performers would be in the building and residents could watch from their homes. 

“Logistically it would be difficult to pull off but it’s something,” Baldassare said. “The community center fills a void for a lot of people.”

The group hopes the community can come to their aid. One of the issues the trust has faced over the years is that residents don’t necessarily know how they operate and mistakenly think the Heritage Park is run by Brookhaven Town or Suffolk County. Brookhaven workers generously supply general maintenance of the baseball field and grass cutting to the park, but the center and playground are owned by the trust, and all other landscaping, such as the flower plantings, are all done by volunteers.

Members of Boy Scout Troop 454 look at the names of flags in Mount Sinai Heritage Park. Photo by Kyle Barr

Baldassare said it has been a messaging issue but hopes if people learn where the funding comes from and what they’ve been offering to the community, individuals would be willing to make donations. 

The two agreed that the trust may need to change how they operate post-COVID-19. 

“I don’t see us coming out the same way we were before coronavirus,” Baldassare said. “We can’t just think nothing will happen, we want to continue to provide a sense of place for the community and I hope we have a path forward to do that.”

Hazan is concerned of how the community center will fare once the pandemic and shutdown is over. 

“I don’t foresee many people being comfortable at a big event like a wedding or reception,” she said. “There will probably be baby steps along the way.”

Possible capacity restrictions could be another obstacle for the group. 

“Not a lot of people are going to want to rent out a place like the center with just limited capacity,” Hazan said. “We’re worried, we’ve worked so hard over the years to get where we are, and I would hate to see it go away.”

When the initial impact of the coronavirus pandemic truly hit home back in March, after businesses were forced closed from state mandates, many turned to their insurance providers and filed for business interruption insurance, which they expected would be used for just this sort of occasion.

Only many received notifications back that their claims were denied. The reason: Insurance companies put in provisions within their policies that excluded coverage due to damages “caused by or resulting from any virus, bacterium or other microorganism that induced or is capable of including physical distress, illness or disease,” according to the Insurance Services Office, an insurance advisory organization.

Though business owners and small business advocates such as The Ward Melville Heritage Organization President Gloria Rocchio pay the premiums year after year, she said they and so many others were denied coverage despite the fact that small businesses didn’t close because they or their shops were confirmed with the virus, but government orders forced them to close. 

“Very simplistically, [business owners] buy themselves a job for the community, and now they’re made to lay off people, keep their business closed, pay all fixed overheads and maybe they don’t have a reserve at home,” Rocchio said. “Everything the government is putting forth is not helping the small businessman — the one who doesn’t have a million in the bank and is paying fixed expenses.”

Efforts on Local and State Levels

The provision in many insurance policies was instituted little less than two decades ago after the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic of the early 2000s. It is only now, almost 20 years later, that owners filing claims learn of the provision despite them having paid premiums for years.

There is a combined bill in the New York State Assembly and Senate to require companies to accept current interruption claims. 

WMHO submitted a public letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) April 22 requesting he supports the Assembly and Senate bill. 

“What we’re saying is to do business in our state, we in the state government do have the power to make sure contracts are fair and equitable.”

— Steve Englebright

“An insurance policy is a contract between the insured and the insurer that clearly spells out those conditions covered and excluded,” the letter reads. “In recent years, because of severe losses, insurers have added exclusions to their policies, slowly diminishing the very purpose of insurance.”

The state Assembly bill is being sponsored in part by Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), and there is a concurrent bill in the state Senate. It would require insurance agencies to cover businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, and would renew any policy that would have covered businesses during shutdown if they expired in the meantime. New York is just one state of seven which is proposing bills to mandate coverage.

“Insurance is controlling risk, that’s what insurance companies do,” Englebright said. “What we’re saying is risk transfer needs to occur with this type of policy in a more predictable manner and a more eligible manner than the fine print currently allows.”

The bill is still in the Assembly Insurance Committee, but Englebright, a ranking assemblyman, said it is picking up widespread support in the Democratic-controlled state Legislature. 

He added he does not believe what insurance companies say when they argue accepting businesses claims would bankrupt their agencies.

“What we’re saying is to do business in our state, we in the state government do have the power to make sure contracts are fair and equitable,” Englebright said. 

Multiple local government and industry groups have come out in support of such a bill. The Long Island Builders Institute released a letter supporting the legislation, saying that if a business has been paying for its insurance, it should honor the claims. 

Mitch Pally, CEO of LIBI, said the insurance companies denying these claims will only create a deeper hole in the economy, which will be an even greater burden to the insurance companies if they go under and no longer can pay their premiums. He also predicted dire consequences to many businesses if claims continue to be denied by June 30 “because the people who bought them didn’t assume their business can be interrupted by something that doesn’t apply [to the insurance].” 

The Brookhaven Town Board and Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) also signed a letter asking Cuomo to throw his support behind the bills.

Federal Efforts

There is a bill currently lingering in the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY3) that would require insurance companies in the future from denying company’s claims based on a pandemic, but even that has seen “tremendous pushback from the insurance industry,” he said during a Zoom call hosted by Discover Long Island May 19. “It’s very controversial — I’m getting the crap kicked out of me by certain people.”

Suozzi, who was appointed by President Donald Trump (R) to the economic reopening task force, said he did not believe anything regarding interruption insurance will see the light of day in some of the large stimulus bills Congress is currently working on.

Some policyholders nationwide have sued their insurance companies for denying their claims. A barbershop owner in San Diego has created a class action lawsuit against his policyholder, Farmers Insurance Group, for denying his claim under such virus damages provisions. Several other class-action lawsuits have been filed in the past month and a half against several other insurance companies.

Though such lawsuits take months if not years to get going, and especially with many court systems largely shut down from the pandemic, it will be a while before any cases see a judge.

“By the time those lawsuits get done, those businesses will be out of business,” Pally said.

Insurance Providers Respond

The American Property Casualty Insurance Association has said if governments required the companies process these claims, it would mean companies would have to process over 30 million businesses suffering from COVID-19-related losses. APCIA President David Sampson was quoted on Twitter saying requiring so would “significantly undermine” their abilities to cover such things as wind damage, fire or other losses.

The industry as a whole currently sits on an $800 billion surplus, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. That business group released a report May 15 with statements from 50 experts from the Wisconsin School of Business insurance panel that if local governments force insurance companies to accept the claims, it will “threaten the solvency of the insurance industry.” Though the report is sponsored by the association through its independent research division, most experts on the panel largely agreed the private marketplace could not handle all the losses with the current surplus in the industry. 

“By the time those lawsuits get done, those businesses will be out of business.”

— Mitch Pally

Though in that same study, some experts, 13 percent of the 50, argued the industry could be able to handle the claims, depending on how federal legislation was enacted. 

Industry lobbyists have said the federal government should be providing help, but one example of small business aid, the Paycheck Protection Program, which was supposed to help keep many small shops in business, has been mired in problems since its inception, and many owners are simply refusing to use the funds fearing they will have to pay back the money long term as a loan. 

The Washington Post reported last month that insurance associations and business groups are hiring lobbyists specifically to play out this fight in Washington, D.C.

What some are hoping for is some kind of middle ground, a place where insurers and the federal government’s interests meet. One suggested draft bill, the Pandemic Risk Insurance Act of 2020, would pay agencies losses when those exceed $250 million and capped at $500 billion over the calendar year, though that bill would only cover future pandemics, and more insurance companies have come out saying it should be the federal government which needs to handle such calls for aid, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Suozzi said he agreed most insurance companies would be “wiped out” trying to cover interruption claims during the pandemic, but also put stock in a public-private partnership, including the possibility of using the infrastructure of the insurance industries to funnel money back into these businesses.

“The bottom line is there’s no relief right now — it’s not going to solve anybody’s problems right now — and I don’t want anybody to get their hopes up,” the congressman said. “But it’s something I’m conscious of and other people are working on it — we just don’t know what the right answer is yet to get it done, because there is so much incredible pushback from the other side.”

In the meantime, Pally said it’s best for businesses to continue writing their state and federal officials. Rocchio suggested that owners, despite the fact some agencies are advising not to bother to file a claim, should apply anyway should anything change in the near future.

John Kennedy Jr. (R) and Steve Bellone (D). File Photos

A Suffolk County working group, led by County Executive Steve Bellone (D), has requested an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to provide a 45-day extension to property tax payments through July 15 for homeowners suffering financially during the pandemic.

Taxpayers who have lost at least 25% of their income or businesses with less than a million dollars in net income that have lost at least half of their net income can fill out a form that attests to their hardship to receive the extension.

The property tax relief, which the group has been discussing for several weeks, will help families that have not received their unemployment checks yet or small businesses who are waiting to receive PPP loans from the federal government, Bellone said on a conference call with reporters.

This provides “more time while the economy is shut down,” said Bellone. The county executive said he hopes to hear back from the governor’s office by next week.

Working with Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R), Bellone and other members of the working group extended the Municipal Liquidity Fund to Suffolk County, which didn’t initially qualify to access these short term funds under the original terms of the Cares Act. Access to these funds has made it possible for the property tax relief efforts to proceed, enabling county and other levels of government to provide residents with the ability to delay their property tax payments without penalties or fees.

Bellone thanked numerous political collaborators at every level of government and from both sides of the political aisle. He expressed appreciation to Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1) and Senator Charles Schumer (D) for helping the county borrow money without interrupting necessary services or creating financial hardship for residents.

“Nobody loves paying property taxes [but] it’s how we run government and how we can have things like the Suffolk County Health Department and police services,” while fire departments and schools also receive their funding through these taxes, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman (R) said on the call.

Schneiderman said the 45 days of relief without interest or penalties “goes a long way to helping those individuals” and that the process of receiving that delay is “fair and easy through a simple attestation.”

Separately, the number of people who tested positive for the virus fell below 100 over the last 24 hours, with 84 positive tests bringing the total number to 38,411. That figure excludes the 10,790 people who have tested positive through the antibody test.

Suffolk County, however, continues to lose residents to the pandemic. In the last day, 19 people have died. At this point, 1,791 residents have died from complications related to COVID-19.

Over the last day, 20 people have left the hospital after battling with the virus. Bellone appreciated that Anthony Greco, a retired New York City police officer and a trustee of the board of the Wantagh Union Free School District, left Mt. Sinai South Nassau Hospital today after battling the virus for 60 days.

“We could not be more excited and thrilled that Anthony is going home today after this long battle with this deadly virus,” Bellone said.

Lock Your Cars and Take Your Keys

Meanwhile, stolen motor vehicle thefts increased 21.3% through the middle of May and thefts from motor vehicles increased by 30% in that same time compared with 2019, according to the Suffolk County Police Department.

Victims not only left their cars unlocked, but left key fobs in sight, making it incredibly easy to open a car, start the engine and drive away.

The SCPD reminded residents to lock their parked cars amid the spate of thefts.

“The increase in thefts of and from vehicles is a direct result of owners not taking the extra step to ensure their cars are secured,” Geraldine Hart, the Suffolk County Police Commissioner said in a statement.