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Port Jefferson

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Bob Strong, right, with his grandchildren Brittany and RJ. Photo from Robyn Strong

Former Port Jefferson mayor and longtime active member of the Port Jeff community Bob Strong passed March 15 after complications from lung cancer. He was 83 and died in the community he knew and loved.

Robert Strong with his two children, Robyn and Robert Jr. Photo from Robyn Strong

Strong was mayor for four years from 1995 to 1999, having been a trustee for four years prior to that. Though his stint as village head was relatively short, Strong would have long and lasting impacts on the village, namely his early help incorporating the easternmost part of the village, his creation of the Business Improvement District and him buying the property that would eventually become Harborfront Park. 

Strong was born June 16, 1936, in New York City, the son of Joseph A. and Pauline R. (Manger) Strong. He would attend SUNY Oswego and graduate in 1958. He was a member of the Beta Tau Epsilon fraternity, where he would meet his wife of nearly 50 years, Evelyn Ann (Repasky) Strong. They would have two children, Robyn and Robert Jr.

People who knew them said the two were inseparable, and it was very rare to see one without the other standing by their side. Evelyn passed away in June 2006. 

Robyn Strong said her father was very gregarious, always there for local parties or events.

The couple moved to the Port Jefferson in 1968, where the family quickly ingratiated itself into the community. Though the area was not yet in the Village of Port Jefferson, Strong quickly became known as a leading voice for incorporation. 

About 90 acres on the eastern end of the village was, until the late 1970s, still not a part of the village. Advocates for integration looked to change that. Unlike the village’s original incorporation in 1963, which was formed out of a desire for home rule, this new incorporation came together through a desire for united identity, according to Larry Britt, a former trustee of 11 years who worked alongside Strong once he later became mayor. 

“There was the same school district — all their kids went to school with our kids — and it was a big section of the village that was left out,” he said.

Harold Sheprow, a former Port Jefferson mayor from 1977 to 1985 and again from 1987 to 1991, soon became fast friends, especially because of their shared advocacy to see the village extended out to Crystal Brook Hollow Road. Strong would spend his efforts knocking on doors, advertising for integration and discussing the prospect in meetings. 

Robert Strong was a mayor for 4 years, but had a lasting impact. Photo from Robyn Strong

“It was a big benefit to Port Jefferson,” Sheprow said. 

The village’s longest serving mayor of 12 years would appoint Strong to the Zoning Board of Appeals. Working up from trustee to deputy mayor to mayor, Strong would work on several major projects, two of which are most felt by village residents today, namely purchasing the land near the harbor that would later become Harborfront Park and the creation of the BID.

Back in time, what is now parkland was filled with oil terminals, with the last owned by Mobil, which merged with Exxon in 1999 to become ExxonMobil. Sheprow said he had worked on that project for years, but Strong was the man to finally get it done, having gained financial help from New York State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). Sheprow said the agreement also forced Mobil to clean up any contamination in the ground, which would help set the stage for what came next. 

Britt, who as trustee worked alongside Strong on the project, said the actions he and the board took involved participation from both local government and residents.

“It was a big focus of what we did,” he said. “I think the fact we had great resident participation was a big part of why it went through.”

The mayor to take up the job after Strong was Jeanne Garant, who would help transform the area into the rolling passive park residents and visitors enjoy today.

Caroline Savino, a former village clerk who would work under five separate mayors, said Strong and other past mayors were looking for ways to have the businesses themselves chip in for the betterment of other village storefronts. 

Britt said the creation of the BID has done much for the village, especially as seen in its current incarnation. Lately, BID members have been working with the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce to get meals from restaurants to hospital workers.

“Who could have looked into the future and see what it is today?” Britt said.

Otherwise, those who worked for Strong in an official capacity knew he could be just as kind in and out of the office.

“Bob was a real gentleman easy to work for — really dedicated to the village,” Savino said. 

Not only did she work for him, but she and Strong were also neighbors, where she said they had originally become friends. Despite him becoming mayor, she said it wasn’t hard to work for him, as he was always so courteous. Even after she retired and moved to North Carolina, Strong wouldn’t hesitate to call her and catch up on things.

Strong was also described as religious, having been a principal of the Infant Jesus R.C. Church religious school for two years. Sheprow said Strong never missed a Mass.

When not traipsing around the village, Strong was a middle school social studies educator in the South Country Central School District. He joined the district in 1958 and remained a teacher until 1966 when he became an assistant principal at the middle school. He became chairman of the social studies department, a position he held from 1972 until 1991. Strong was also a student council adviser

Robert Strong was a mayor for 4 years, but had a lasting impact. Photo from Robyn Strong15

Steve Willner, a fellow teacher in the South Country school district knew Strong well, having worked with him for eight years, becoming friends with him in much the same way others have, thanks to his personable attitude.

“He was really highly regarded in the school by both students and faculty members as [someone who was as] professional and personable as possible,” Willner said. 

Friends who knew Strong all mentioned his love of history, both world and U.S., and his ability to talk about current events. Britt remembered having plenty of discussions on politics and world issues.

When one was friends with Strong, they knew it well. Willner said he would invite the man to his son’s wedding and daughter’s bar mitzvah. Even when Willner moved to Florida after retirement, Strong and he would still keep in touch, communicating together up until the time of his death.

When Strong’s wife Evelyn passed in 2006, friends said the former mayor took it hard. 

“He and his wife were very joined together at the hip and never went anywhere without each other,” said Sheprow. “They were very much attached to each other — he never got over when she passed.”

Still people who knew him talked of how he would continue to call them or meet up, whether they were in the area or lived several states away. Robyn said her father and mother were both heavy travelers, having visited all 50 states and all continents, save Asia and Africa.

Robyn said her father was diagnosed with lung cancer 14 months before his death in March, but that he “was a fighter to the very end.” 

Because of the ongoing crisis, the family will not be holding any services at this point, though they are currently developing plans for a memorial in early summer.

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Village Hires Deputy Village Attorney/Prosecutor

Port Jefferson Village Hall. File photo by Heidi Sutton

Despite the ongoing pandemic, Port Jefferson village is still moving ahead with its budget agenda, this year seeing a revenue decrease thanks in part to the LIPA settlement reducing the assessed value of the Port Jefferson Power Station.

The Port Jefferson village board held a budget hearing over the Internet, even including a live rendition of the national anthem by Port Jefferson student Nicholas Rodriguez, who played Oliver during the annual Charles Dickens Festival.

However, the new format did not allow for any public comment. This was in accordance with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) executive order suspending portions of the public meeting law due to the coronavirus crisis.

The proposed 2020-21 budget includes $9,992,565 in total appropriations, a 3.19 percent decrease from last year’s amount of $10,310,869. This takes into account a 3.5 percent Increase in the tax rate, a $111,088 decrease in assessed value of the Port Jefferson Power Station, as well as a $145,000 decrease in ambulance charges since that is now handled by the Town of Brookhaven.

“Cutting our budget by over $300,000 was not an easy task,” said Mayor Margot Garant. “In cutting that budget we were effective in consolidating some departments.”

One of the changes she referenced was moving one clerk typist into the position of a retiring typist, at a lower salary, without replacing the original with a new employee. 

As regards other village employees, the village assessor, who was on an hourly rate, has become salaried at $30,000, resulting in an increase of $26,019 from what he was getting paid this last year.

The board is also hiring a full-time internal deputy village attorney as a prosecutor, for a total expense to the village of $102,000. Garant said the board agreed this was needed to help prosecute offenses more effectively, also bringing in more revenue for the courts.

“We were just not getting any real effect as a board,” the mayor said. “We collectively agreed bringing on a staff full time will have more direction over individuals.

Village attorney Brian Egan said this will aid in prosecutions of village code infractions. He added that New York State’s new discovery laws, which require municipalities to present all evidence to the defense within a short time after being charged with a crime, have been difficult on small entities like Port Jeff. The new prosecutor will be in charge of handling that side of things.

“This is to really put an emphasis on our code enforcement to go out and aggressively prosecute code enforcement violations,” Egan said. “Having a full-time deputy village attorney … will benefit [the village] all the time.”

This year, the village is looking to raise $6,451,427 from taxes, a near $50,000 increase from last year.

“Because our LIPA assessment is frozen at a settlement … the assessed value shifts from the power plant to the shoulders of our residents,” Garant said.

In terms of capital projects, there are several on the horizon for the upcoming fiscal year, including building the $795,069 parking lot on Barnum Avenue. There are also plans to renovate the Highlands Boulevard retaining wall in the next two to three months using funds from the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York gained through state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). Additionally, the village has gained Suffolk County grants to renovate the bathrooms by Rocketship Park and in the lower floor of Village Hall, to fix lingering issues, make them Americans with Disabilities Act compliant and heat the outside bathrooms so they can be used in the winter. Additionally, an $80,000 drainage project on Longfellow Drive is expected to start this year.

The village has also recently received permits from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for securing the bluff on East Beach, which has been rapidly eroding over the past several years. The mayor had expected they would need to take out a small bond for that project. Another bonded project will most likely be the digitization of village records at both the building and planning department and the clerk’s department. Such a project may cost upward of $200,000. 

The village currently has a AA bond rating.

Setauket Harbor: In the last decade, Shore Road along Setauket Harbor has flooded approximately a half a dozen times a year, which is more than in the past due to astronomical tides. “All coastal communities will be increasingly impacted by rising sea level, and sea level rise goes hand in hand with climate change,” George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force said. “One way to identify the areas that will be impacted is to look at the areas that are now impacted by storms and astronomical tides. All the low-level shore areas in the Three Village community are the most vulnerable. And, they tend to be the areas that we like to go down to, along the shore, such as beaches and docks and harbor areas. It is projected that in the next hundred years as sea level continues to rise that we will see portions of Route 25A flooding during storm events that we haven’t seen before.” Photo by Maria Hoffman

By Sapphire Perera

I haven’t been to school in 13 days and I don’t know when I’m going back. Many of the shelves in the grocery stores are empty, toilet paper is sold out and everyone is self-quarantining. This panic and fear are due to the outbreak of the most current pandemic — the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. This new strain of coronavirus originated in China and has spread globally. While it seems improbable that there’s a connection between pandemics and climate change, past pandemics prove otherwise. This connection shows us that for every action, there is a reaction.

Interview with Dr. Lisa M. Chirch

Dr. Lisa M. Chirch is a associate professor of medecine at the University of Connecticut who specializes in infectionous diseases.

SP: Sapphire Perera; LC: Lisa Chirch

SP: Due to habitat loss, there is evidence of vector transference between wild animals and livestock. Do you think this will eventually involve household pets, which may be more susceptible to loss of native immunity? 

LC: Good question, and very important to those of us with household pets we adore as part of the family. To date, it is unclear whether viral infections such as COVID-19 can infect dogs and cats, or whether they would become ill if infected. It really depends on the specific organism and how they infect, which tissues are targets, which receptors are used for cell entry, etc. Certainly, the potential for domestic animals to be affected is present, and we should probably be taking similar precautions with our beloved pets as with our family members whom we want to protect.

SP: Extreme changes in global weather patterns are one factor of climate change. With increases in climate change and warmer weather, do you feel that future pandemics will originate in places such as North America and Western Europe instead of Asia and Africa, as they did with the 1918 Spanish flu?

LC: Throughout history, pandemics have originated from sites all over the world. Pandemics originate when humans are exposed to “novel” organisms we have never seen before, exposing populations without immunity. Over time these have frequently been related to the animal/human interface in some way, with organisms “jumping” from one species to another, and in the worst-case scenario, becoming efficient at human-to-human transmission. So, to the extent that climate change drives animals and humans further together, it drives the possibility of further epidemics. Importantly, climate change has more immediate and tangible effects on infectious diseases in humans that have been recently notable, such as the appearance of certain mosquito-borne arboviruses in the southern U.S. (dengue, chikungunya, Zika), and tick-borne illnesses migrating northward as well, with the associated northward movement of the tick species that carry them.

Sapphire Perera

Climate change has made our winters shorter and the weather unseasonably warm. This global increase in temperature is just one of the causes of climate change, and directly affects vectors i.e., disease-carrying organisms such as mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and flies. These vectors spread diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, and yellow fever which are some of the worst pandemics. The global increase in temperature is driving these vectors further from the equator and into the northern hemisphere. For instance, the United States has seen increased cases of dengue and malaria in Florida, California and Texas. Europe and the U.S. may soon be subjected to the same epidemics that plague people in equatorial climates. In contrast, other regions that usually struggle through the worst of the pandemics and epidemics will see a decrease in the number of outbreaks.

The increase in temperature, rainfall and humidity also creates more breeding grounds for vectors, leading to the easier spread of diseases. This was exemplified by India’s monsoon season from 1994 to 1996. The excessive monsoon rainfall and high humidity in the Punjab region of India led to an increase in malaria epidemics in places such as Rajasthan, Manipur, Nagaland and Haryana. Recent studies have shown that El Niño has actually increased the malaria epidemic risk in India by about fivefold. El Niño scientists have discovered increases in incidences of cholera, Zika, chikungunya, and hantavirus with El Niño occurrences. 

Deforestation is another cause of climate change that brings vectors closer to urban communities.  Sonia Shah, the author of the book “Pandemic,” says in her article in The Nation, “When deforestation threatens the survival of wild species, there are more opportunities for animal microbes to adapt to human bodies.” One example from the many pandemics that we’ve had in the past is the Ebola outbreak. In places such as Central and West Africa, there have been serious deforestation and habitat losses for bats, which are vectors for Ebola. These bats started inhabiting places closer to urban populations which, in turn, increased the likelihood of Ebola outbreaks. Studies in 12 countries have actually shown that it is twice as common to have vector mosquitoes in deforested areas than in intact forests. 

Apart from bringing vectors close to human communities, climate change is introducing prehistoric diseases to mankind. In 2016, the Russian city of Yakutsk saw the outbreak of anthrax during a heat wave in Siberia. The thawing permafrost soil there released long-dormant bacteria and viruses that had been trapped in the ice for centuries. One 12-year-old boy died and at least 20 people were hospitalized from infection. Scientists speculate that more diseases lie beneath the ice and with the rising global temperature, we may see the reemergence of diseases such as smallpox, the bubonic plague and the 1918 Spanish flu.

Since January, there has been a significant universal decrease in social and economic activity. The results from this are astounding. First of all, since there has been slower economic activity, there has been a drop in carbon dioxide emissions. In Hubei province in Central China, there has been a drop in air pollution as the cloud of nitrogen dioxide evaporated in February. Italy saw similar results in its environment pertaining to nitrogen dioxide levels. Additionally, the once-murky canal water in Venice is now so clear that you can see the fish below. In countries all over the world, we are seeing changes like this. Unfortunately, it’s taking a pandemic brought about by climate change to reduce climate change.

Sapphire Perera is a junior at Port Jefferson high school. The “Turtle Island,” as the name for this ongoing column refers to the Native American mythology about North America existing on the back of a great turtle that bears every living being on its spine.

The Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson. Photo by Kyle Barr

The COVID-19 crisis has affected daily life for every resident, but it has especially created challenges for individuals seeking essential resources, and for the workers and volunteers who provide them. The ongoing health crisis has caused numerous facilities including homeless shelters and other nonprofit organizations to rethink how they operate for the time being. 

For Stephen Brazeau, director of Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson, it has been business as usual at the facility, with a few exceptions. 

“We’ve had an open-door policy at the center, but now we’ve locked the front door and have begun screening individuals who want to come in,” Brazeau said. “We usually have significant walk-in traffic and we’ve definitely seen a reduction in that.”

The director said they have seen anywhere from a 60-70 percent decrease in walk-ins. 

Currently, the hospitality center has a total of four staff members working with a few volunteers, compared to an additional 10 interns and 40-plus volunteers, due to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) executive order limiting operations. Brazeau said the center’s 24 beds are occupied, and for individuals they can’t accommodate they are trying to set them up with an official from the county’s department of social services. 

“We are doing our best to make sure these services and basic needs are continuing to be offered,” he said. “At the same time, we want our workers to be safe as well.”

In 2016, 3,960 individuals were deemed homeless on Long Island but more than half of those were children, according to a Long Island Coalition for the Homeless survey count. More than half of the surveyed homeless were children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended homeless shelters minimize face-to-face staff interactions with clients, and limit visitors to the facility during the outbreak. 

The state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance said in a directive to shelter providers, “congregate facilities, such as shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness, are especially at risk for the spread of communicable diseases due to the number of individuals living in close proximity.”

Brazeau said he is also concerned about undocumented individuals who may need a place to stay as well as food.

“A few of the places that they go to for meals have closed, so we have tried to lead them to churches, schools and other places that are offering them,” the director said. 

For Celina Wilson, president of the Bridge of Hope Resource Center, she and her staff have had to adjust on the fly. Moving away from face-to-face interactions and meetings, they now try to do most of their work through phone calls and other technological means. 

“Even though we are limited in mobility, we are still able to help and advise our clients on a number of issues,” Wilson said. “We call them, text them, FaceTime them and we walk them through whatever they need help with.”

The Port Jefferson Station-based resource center provides a number of counseling, mentoring and education services. It is working on a graphic informational guide on the coronavirus that will be published on its website. In addition, the center will list other resources available on the Island like sites for mobile food distribution. 

“At this point we have to work together to get through this and keep people informed,” Wilson said.

Bob and MaryLou Whitcomb at their house in Old Field cutting up fabric for the homemade masks. Their neighbor Christine Matthews, along with her children, finishes the job by sewing them. Photo from MaryLou Whitcomb

As hospitals experience a significant lack of protective masks during the growing coronavirus pandemic, locals are looking for ways to assist, using on-hand materials and their own equipment. 

Christine Matthews, along with her children, helps create masks for healthcare workers at her house in Old Field. Photo from MaryLou Whitcomb

Rebecca Kassay, who co-owns the Fox and Owl Inn in Port Jefferson, started a Facebook group, Suffolk County Creators of COVID19 Medical Supplies, to not only get the word out that there’s a need for homemade supplies but also to make sure locals are crafting these items the right way.

Kassay said there has been a growing demand for aid, and with so many people home from work and school, many are looking for ways they can help out.

“That’s what the group is aiming to do — to focus all of that information into one place,” she said.

Groups like Kassay’s have popped up all across the country as news of this lack of personal protective equipment grows. A national Facebook group called Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies has put forward a countrywide initiative to crowdsource more of these protective items. This mainly includes gloves, gowns and masks.

The Suffolk group is just getting its legs but have already confirmed donations are accepted in several local places, including the Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, Pax Christi homeless shelter in Port Jeff, Welcome Friends Soup Kitchen in Port Jeff and Stony Brook University Hospital.

Kassay said the point of her group is to make sure people are making masks to a rigorous standard, following instructions provided by multiple sites including www.project-cloth-masks.com as well as documents provided by the OSCMS.

Angela Clayton, a historical costume designer from Manorville, said she started making masks because she had both the material and the skillset, and knew she needed to put them to use.

“I’m lucky to be financially stable and healthy, I wanted to help in any way I could,” she said. 

The costume designer has been making masks from 100 percent cotton fabric, which can be used as a mask or as a cover for the more sought after N95 medical masks. She got her designs from www.makemasks2020.org, which not only gives designs but partners with groups around the country to get specifically requested designs from the makers to those who need them. 

People all over Long Island have caught onto this trend. Old Field residents Bob and MaryLou Whitcomb, along with their neighbor Christine Matthews and her children Nicole and Connor, have been crafting handmade masks since Friday, March 20. MaryLou said the idea came after a phone call with her sister in Boston, with the person on the other end upset of her own close family members working in the health care field while severely lacking supplies of masks.

So far, the neighborhood team has made around 200 masks, which were mailed to Whitcomb’s sister. They have made masks for doctors in the Old Field area and also have plans to ship more to NYU Langone hospital.

“I thought to myself, we’re all sitting around — why don’t we do something?” MaryLou said. 

There are some issues, including accessing supplies, particularly in terms of elastic, which has proved hard to come by. The Suffolk County Creators group has been trying to crowdsource materials from people who have it, especially the elastic bands. Though now there are more and more examples of people making ties from fabric instead.

Angela Clayton, a historical costume designer from Manorville, has been designing masks for healthcare workers. Photo from Clayton’s instagram

Though area hospitals are loath to admit it, officials have said there is a general lack of PPE material in nearly every medical sector. Some of this is due to people hoarding such devices since the start of the outbreak. As cases ramp up, hospital workers have been dealing with the shortage. There are reported cases of hospital workers using masks meant for just a single encounter for over a week. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said there are some facilities, including nursing homes, first responders as well as hospitals, that have been reduced to a pittance of the preventative garb and devices.

Though Stony Brook University Hospital officials have said they “have supplies, but need more,” they have started accepting PPE donations. 

“It’s amazing how people can come together to support one another in a time of crisis,” said Stony Brook University Hospital CEO Carol Gomes in an email statement. “We are grateful for the community’s willingness to help one another. We’re all in this together.”

A Stony Brook spokesperson said the hospital is “open to accepting all kinds of donations at this time. They will then be sorted and distributed appropriately.”

Despite this, Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott said in a phone call with reporters that masks need to be certified if they are to be of any use. Making masks at home is “not advised — we’re looking for masks that can help filter out the virus,” he said. “They need to be certified and tested.”

Kassay said she agrees these masks are not replacements for the professionally made and certified items normally used in the health care sector. At the same time, while other health care providers may have better access to the high filtering top-of-the-line N95 masks, people who work for food pantries, food banks or even just in retail do not have the same access to the high-grade PPE items. Not to mention, there are several designs for masks that can go over the N95 types, potentially allowing them to last longer without being soiled.

For those looking to get into making masks, Clayton said its best to order materials remotely and not threaten the spread of the virus. Use the resources available and try and contact groups that may need masks but are not in the medical field, such as shelters, clinics or senior centers to see what they may need as well.

Kassay said these homemade masks, at the very least, help remind people not to touch their nose or mouth, which experts have recommended people restrict themselves from doing.

“Something is better than nothing,” Kassay said. “We’re all living in this unprecedented time, we’re all wondering what we can do. You want to make sure you’re doing something in the best way possible.” 

County Solicits PPE Supplies from Local Companies

In calls to reporters, Bellone said they simply do not have enough beds and other supplies for what still could be a ballooning of the number of coronavirus cases. Hospitals, officials warned, could be overwhelmed as we head toward a peak number of cases. 

The county announced a donation drive for medical supplies. They are looking for donations of N95 masks, ear loop face masks, gowns and gloves from the construction industry, building trades and others in organized labor, as they are supplies that are often used on work sites. Additionally, the county is soliciting donations of ear loop masks and gloves from the personal service industry.

By the end of Monday, the first day of the drive, Bellone said they have already received “an incredible amount of outpouring and support.” This included 40,000 gloves of various sizes, 3,000 N95 masks, 1,500 gowns and over 3,000 ear loop masks.

Donations can be delivered to the Suffolk County Fire Academy located at 102 East Ave. in Yaphank between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays. Residents can email FRESfinance@suffolkcountyny.gov regarding a large donation of supplies or a potential vendor of opportunity.

“You cannot continue to do these supplies on an ad hoc basis.”

— Andrew Cuomo

As of Monday, Long Island is set to receive 33,976 N95 masks, 86,170 surgical masks, 35,350 gloves, 14,512 gowns and 19,709 face shields. Cuomo admitted that even with these supplies, hospitals will need more especially in the long term.

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has said New York hospitals would need to increase the number of intensive care unit beds by approximately 18,000 to 37,000 in total to deal with the peak of the pandemic in New York. The governor put out an executive order saying hospitals must increase the number of beds by at least 50 percent.

Companies like 3M, which manufactures the N95 masks, would be shipping half a million masks to New York and Seattle.

But Cuomo said even such beneficial acts by a few companies belies the need for all such companies to step up to the plate. He has urged the Donald Trump (R) administration to invoke the Defense Production Act, which would allow them to order manufacturers to increase production of much-needed PPE items. The president has signed an executive order invoking the act but has yet to make a single order. Cuomo said those companies would be “paid handsomely” for the effort, but that it was needed more than ever.

“You can’t run this operation that way — it can’t just be based on ‘we’re waiting for people to come forward with offers,’” he said at the Monday press conference. “You cannot continue to do these supplies on an ad hoc basis.” 

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Robert Niedig, Robin Hoolahan and Sean Leister deliver bags of food to students who need it. The program is expected to continue as long as the schools remained closed. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though schools in the Port Jefferson area may be closed, districts have been working constantly to get food to the children who may need it now more than ever.

Volunteers and staff help deliver meals at both JFK Middle School and the Comsewogue High School March 19. Photo by Leigh Powell

Port Jefferson Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister and a few volunteers stood inside the high school’s cafeteria Friday, March 20. For the weekend, the district was handing out three meals, one for Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively. 

The program is based on the district’s previous reduced cost lunch program, but now its being donated to anybody 18 or under free. Nobody has to sign up, and nobody at the door checks if the person lives within the district.

“The program is not restricted, it’s for any child 18 and under that feels they have a need,” Leister said.

When school was normally in session, Leister said the district had 110 students signed up for the program, where around 65 normally picked it up. In the last week or so, the district has been producing around 50 to 60 meals each day. Middle School Principal Robert Neidig has also volunteered to deliver to those resident’s houses who said they were unable to come out to pick their meals up. He said families have been really appreciative, even one young girl who comes to the door so excited to see the meals he’s brought.

“It’s like if I were delivering them candy,” Neidig said.

Each bag comes with a sandwich, bagel or wrap, along with fruit and milk. Any untaken meals are being given to Infant Jesus RC Church for them to distribute any remaining food.

Leister said the district has also applied to New York State to allow them to make breakfast and dinner meals as well. Local residents can get these meals at the Port Jefferson High school from 11 to 1 p.m. on weekdays.

Meanwhile in the Comsewogue school district, staff and a score of volunteers worked Thursday, March 19 at two separate schools to donate around 1,800 meals to children in need within the district.

Volunteers and staff help deliver meals at both JFK Middle School and the Comsewogue High School March 19. Photo by Jennifer Quinn

Comsewogue School District Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said the staff took everything from the schools cafeterias and even raided the faculty food pantry. Originally the district thought they would be able to only give out 1,100, but they went far above what they expected. 

This is one of the toughest things we’ve ever experienced — we will do what we need to do, together,” Quinn said. “We need to make sure our families are fed and our children are educated, and we are as whole as possible by the end of all this.”

Food included in bags were cold cuts, bread, apple sauce, juice, milk, cereal, cereal bars, and frozen hamburgers and meatballs. Staff and volunteers placed the bags inside the cars of those who drove up to the high school and JFK Middle School. Volunteers also drove meals to families who said they were unable to come by the two pickup locations.

There were around 30 volunteers who came by to offer aid. Quinn said they were offered aid by over 100 residents, but she felt she had to turn most away to try and reduce the chance of any kind of contagion.

The Comsewogue district is expecting nonprofit food bank Island Harvest to donate them another 300 meals come this Monday. Quinn added the district is likely to raid the cafeterias in the other schools, and should have another 1,100 meals after they receive aid from a New York State program giving food aid to schools during the mandated shutdown.

The Comsewogue School District is expecting to host its next bagged food drive Thursday, April 2.

 

The Huntington-based Main St. Board Game Cafe has had to let staff go in the hopes of surviving. They are still selling board games to-go. Photo from Board Game Cafe Facebook

By Kyle Barr and Leah Chiappino

As Monday rolled around this week, and as local businesses were looking to find ways to attract customers during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, a new order handed down by New York State put most of those considerations on hold.

On Monday, March 16, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ordered many nonessential businesses to shut down, or in the case of restaurants, to lessen foot traffic and only allow takeout orders and deliveries.

PJ Cinemas has closed due to the state’s coronavirus mandates. Photo from Google Maps

“Our primary goal right now is to slow the spread of this virus so that the wave of new infections doesn’t crash our health care system, and everyone agrees social distancing is the best way to do that,” Cuomo said. “I have called on the federal government to implement nationwide protocols, but in their absence, we are taking this on ourselves.”

New York State, Connecticut and New Jersey will all be limiting social meetings of any sort to 50 people. Movie theaters, gyms and casinos were closed starting at 8 p.m. Monday.

The governor also announced restaurants and bars will be closed to sit down service and would need to refocus on takeout.

PJ Cinemas already announced closure until they, “receive further guidance from state, local and federal authorities.” All ticket sales will stay valid until they reopen.

Local elected officials said the restrictions were due to people’s reports that numerous bars had high activity over the weekend, despite warnings.

“We are discussing ways to make sure that it is enforced,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). “We expect bars and restaurants will comply … by and large we’ve had great compliance from people.”

Businesses and local business groups took the news with a mix of understanding and worry. Most understood the reason why the state has taken such drastic measures but could hardly fathom how this might impact them long term. The change could not just mean shuttered businesses for the next few weeks, but permanent closures.

Jennifer Dzvonar, the president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses are the “lifeblood of the community,” and times such as these require the community to come out in support, whether it’s ordering takeout from restaurants or buying vouchers or gift certificates.

The difficulties will be severe. As people are asked to stay home, some away from work, less will have money to spend. She said service businesses, including plumbers, carpenters and the like, will be hard hit since less have the money to spend.

Jennifer Dzvonar, the PJS/T Chamber president, said local businesses will be hit hard by the state mandates. File Photo

“Businesses need as much positive reinforcement as possible,” Dzvonar said.

She added businesses also often sponsor Little Leagues or other community events, so while the governor’s order is in effect such groups may have to go without for the time being.

Other chamber leaders in the area wrote quickly to members to try and offer assistance. 

Gary Pollakusky, the president of the Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce, said he is especially worried about businesses shutting down permanently. 

“When we look at our small businesses as the lifeblood of our communities, we should be focused on our mom and pop shops, more than ever in this time of need,” he said.

Jane Taylor, the executive director of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce, said restaurants providing takeout meals is a good bridge until business returns to normal, but, “There is no question that our local businesses and restaurants are going to face challenges.” 

Northport Chamber of Commerce President James Izzo says the impact of the restrictions on the village could be devastating.

“Small businesses especially are trying to keep their [employees] paid, and it’s difficult to do that with no money coming in,” he said.

He added most village restaurants are trying to focus on takeout, removing or making their seating inaccessible. Most are trying to deliver food, which can be expensive.

“There’s two sides to this,” Izzo said. “You have some people who are afraid to come out who need food, need to eat and need supplies, and you have other people that want to come down, but everything is so limited. We have bars, but they don’t serve food, and you can’t have more than 10 people in a space, so that’s a done deal.”

Some boutique stores are open, but most are trying to supplement the lack of foot traffic with online shopping.

Izzo said that the village was quiet with minimal traffic Tuesday afternoon, while Sunday was busy with foot traffic.

“You can’t make a living one day a week,” he said. “We are a seasonal community and businesses depend on this time of the year after a long cold dark winter.”

He said the mood in the village is still hopeful, though uncertain.

“This is uncharted territory and everyone is trying to figure it out day by day,” he said.

Merchants are talking about using vehicles owned by the village to deliver meals to those in need. The chamber is working on providing advertising to businesses for free, to promote their delivery services or online products.

Izzo, a real estate broker, says the impact to his business has been minimal, stating most of his work is done online. Open houses have been slower than usual at this time of year, but not completely dead. However, he is anxious to see what this upcoming weekend will bring, in the wake of the new restrictions.

“This is uncharted territory and everyone is trying to figure it out day by day.”

— James Izzo

“A lot can change in six days, we will have to see what happens,” he said.

Copenhagen Bakery and Cafe has had to close its seating but is still open for takeout. The owner,  Flemming Hansen, says that most of the business is in takeout baked goods, and while the number of customers is down, there has been a steady flow of people purchasing breads and soups.

“So far we’re doing alright,” he said. “We’re taking it day by day.”

He added that cake sales have dropped, as people are not having gatherings.

Neil Goldberg, the owner of Main Street Board Game Café in Huntington, said the restrictions have forced him to lay off the entire staff in hopes of buying time.

“Nobody is going to make any money, it’s just about keeping the doors open,” he said.

The cafe’s purpose normally is to be a place where people can come in, socialize and play board games; however, they have had to eliminate all food services, besides prepackaged drinks and are only selling games.

“It’s not worth it for us to turn the ovens on,” he said.

He added the store had some purchases “from people who realize that they’re going to need more entertainment than just watching TV and watching the news.”

The cafe will offer curbside delivery of games and are looking to offer delivery services within a 15-mile radius in the coming days.

Goldberg said the local village businesses are checking in on each other and sharing advice and ideas.

“There’s no plan for this,” he said. “Nobody has insurance for this, because it doesn’t exist, and all you can do is lean on each other and hope things will improve.”

Despite all of this, Goldberg has seen moments of humanity. On Tuesday, former employees came in and bought games to help the shop stay afloat. Then, a mother, who has a son that plays in a game tournament at the shop, bought $1,000 worth of gift cards.

“That was really moving,” he said. 

Goldberg added the best way to support small businesses during this time is to patronize them as much as possible.

“Gift cards are good because, you will eventually use them and you are essentially providing a no-interest loan to the business that you like,” he said. “Honestly, the best thing that you can do is to stay socially distant so we can get through this quicker. Everything that everybody is doing is just Band-Aids at this point to a large problem, and the best thing for businesses is for things to go back to the way they were.”

Meanwhile, federal officials in the House and Senate are considering an aid bill to help workers. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would provide free testing, extend the unemployment payment period and offer paid sick leave and emergency leave for workers in companies with 500 or less employees. The latter could exempt companies with 50 or fewer employees if that measure would bankrupt the company.

President Donald Trump (R) has called for a $850 billion aid stimulus to major companies such as airlines impacted by the spread of the virus. The White House has also suggested deferring tax payments and even sending home checks to every American to cushion the blow of being out of work. As of press time, details have been sporadic, and the president’s office has flip-flopped on several initiatives already.

The Village of Port Jefferson declared a state of emergency March 16, after both the state and Suffolk County declared theirs. As of Tuesday, March 17, Village Hall and all village-owned facilities are closed to the public. Further board of trustee meetings will be held remotely, along with the budget presentation that was planned for March 30. The executive order only ends after a further order from the village mayor.

“The only thing we can do is ask residents to continue to support the local businesses.”

— Margot Garant

According to Mayor Margot Garant, the executive order allows code enforcement to enforce the new restrictions on businesses. 

“The only thing we can do is ask residents to continue to support the local businesses,” she said, adding those stores are “going to adapt, they will find means to keep those businesses viable.”

Barbara Ransome, the executive director of the PJ village chamber, said the chamber is working on a social media campaign encouraging takeout pickups and deliveries.

With nobody really able to say how long life will be disrupted because of COVID-19, the true consequences of this loss of business are still unknown. 

“My mother always used to say you can live with anything bad as long as you know it’s not long term, or you see it ending,” Ransome said.

Businesses, she said, are all hedging on when that end finally arrives.

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Devin Rotunno, a native of Port Jeff, is made to wear a mask when she travels outside her room at quarantine in SBU's Southampton campus. Photo from Rotunno

In little more than a week, Port Jefferson native Devin Rotunno’s life has been turned upside down, and though the coronavirus pandemic has impacted many, for students learning overseas, recent events have been dramatic.

Jokingly, Devin Rotunno put up a sign in her dorm at SBU’s Southampton campus noting the number of days she’s been in quarantine. Photo from Rotunno

On Tuesday, March 3, Rotunno was in Florence, Italy, studying fashion among the great Renaissance-era domed cathedrals and aged orange-tile roofed buildings. By late Saturday, March 7, she was back in the U.S., holed up in a small dorm room in Stony Brook University’s Southampton campus. In quarantine, she’s only allowed to go outside her room to go to the bathroom or to pick up her food from the lobby. She is on a floor with two other students, but none are allowed out together at the same time. When out, they must wear a mask at all times.

“If you asked me last week, Tuesday, if I would be leaving, I would have literally thought you were crazy,” she said.

Still, as the days drag by, the 19-year old has had to find ways to fill the time — a full 14 days of quarantine before she’s finally out March 21. Experts have said COVID-19 has a two-week gestation period, and she is among well over 150 people in quarantine in Suffolk County, both mandatory and voluntary.

As a first-year student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, being taught at the Polimoda International Institute of Fashion Design and Marketing in Florence had been an incredible experience. On March 3, Italy had yet to institute its nationwide shutdown, and Rotunno said she had seen people still living their lives as they had just a month before, however with a few more people were being cautious by wearing masks and gloves.

Late Wednesday, March 4, that all changed. Students studying abroad received emails from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security telling them they had to leave and return to the U.S. They were given a day to pack their things and either book flights themselves or take a flight guaranteed by the federal government. When the freshman college student received the news, she was working on a midterm project.

“Our program director — she knew how much we wanted to stay — she was figuring out online classes for us,” Rotunno said.

The students in her class handed in all their assignments, even if they weren’t fully done.

The students boarded a Delta flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport, just around 70 kids from SUNY schools together on the flight. When they landed, instead of being taken through the airport proper, they were led to a hanger where two buses awaited them. The majority went on one bus to SUNY Brockport. The fashion student went on the other bus, where students who said they were self-quarantining were dropped off at Stony Brook University’s main campus, while the rest were taken to the Southampton location, arriving there Saturday, March 7 at 11 p.m.

Devin Rotunno helps kids plant seeds using her Gold Award project Aug. 10, 2018 at the Long Island Explorium on East Broadway in Port Jefferson. File photo by Alex Petroski

She now lives in a suite with two people living in separate dorms across the hall from her. She speaks with them on a group text, but she doesn’t have much communication with them. Most of the time the way she knows they’re there is from hearing them move in their rooms or their feet as they walk down the hall.

“I was joking around with my friends — I was sending them pictures saying, ‘Look, I’m in the Hamptons,’ sending them a picture of the street and cars going by,” she said.

For now, she’s catching up on some Netflix shows and doing work for all her classes which are soon to be hosted online. While some of her basic lectures will likely translate easily enough, some of her classes, which have required draping and sewing, will have to be largely abstracted.

It’s been hard to watch things go on from the inside of quarantine. She said friends had already booked flights to visit her in Florence for spring break, but those plans have been somewhat quashed. When President Donald Trump (R) announced a 30-day travel ban to all European countries save Great Britain and Ireland, she herself panicked as not all her stuff from Italy has yet arrived, but she said she’s received word the rest of her items should be arriving soon.

Despite the initial confusion and anger of being pulled out of Italy with barely enough time to make sure her things were packed and hand in last-minute assignments, she said she understands why this is necessary.

“When everything was on lockdown, it was the right decision,” she said.

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The children's section of the Port Jefferson Free Library. File photo by Heidi Sutton

The Port Jefferson Free Library has closed its doors effective March 13 until further notice due to coronavirus concerns. 

Library Director Tom Donlon announced it late Friday after the library administration and board of trustees came to the decision it was necessary to “protect the health and well being of patrons and staff,” according to an email statement.

The announcement has come after multiple levels of government, including New York State and the White House declared a state of emergencies Thursday and Friday, respectively. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has called for a shutdown of all public gathering of 500 people or more. 

“The library fully appreciates and understands the disappointment and disruption that this action will cause, but finds that it is paramount to preserve to the greatest extent possible the safety of our patrons and staff during this declared state of emergency,” a statement from the library read. 

Patrons will not accrue any late fees on checked-out items while the library is closed.

The statement also asked patrons to consult the library’s website, portjefflibrary.org,  for ongoing developments. Online services including Overdrive, Hoopla and Kanopy are still available from the library’s website.

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Port Jefferson struggled to stay with Carle Place in the Long Island Championship round March 6 where the Lady Royals trailed by six after the first 8 minutes of play. They then went down by 16 at the half, and the Frogs never let up the rest of the way to put the game away 70-42 at Newfield High School.

Carle Place advances to the Regional finals March 15. 

Port Jeff concludes their season as League VII champions with a 13-3 league record, adding post season victories against Babylon and Mattituck to reach the LIC title game. 

The Royals — a very young team — will lose just two seniors to graduation, including Jacqueline Lambe and Samantha Ayotte, and if the bulk of the remaining roster returns Port Jeff stands to be the powerhouse in their league again next season.