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small businesses

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

As Long Island continues to take steps toward reopening and some sense of normalcy, municipalities are aiming to help small businesses and their financial futures. The Town of Brookhaven has created a post-COVID-19 task force for economic recovery in an effort to revitalize the downtown areas and help small businesses affected by the pandemic, many of which are receiving no income at all during this time.

The Small Business Recovery Task Force is made up of business owners, chamber of commerce representatives, business experts and other officials. 

Barbara Ransome, executive director of the Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, said the task force gives them the opportunity to come together and be on the same page on how to help these small businesses. 

“We all have similar concerns and it’s important that we rally together and have a unified plan,” she said. 

The task force has continued to comply with feedback from local business owners. A complaint they have brought up is the state’s process of phasing in business reopenings.

“They could come up with a formula that could be based on square footage of a business and safety measures.”

— Barbara Ransome

Ransome said the state’s plan favors big box stores. While large retailers like Target and Walmart have been able to stay open, smaller merchants, who sell many of the same products, have been forced to close. =

“Those businesses don’t have that ability right now [to reopen],” she said. 

Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and the Suffolk County Supervisors’ Association has sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) calling on him to come up with a consistent way of judging businesses. 

“They could come up with a formula that could be based on square footage of a business and safety measures,” she said. 

The group has also called on elected officials to help with insurance coverage issues.

Educating business owners, merchants and customers on social distancing and other best practices is another area the task force is focusing on. 

“It’s all our responsibility to make sure we are on the same page,” said Charlie Lefkowitz, the president of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce,. 

One idea they’ve proposed is creating a public service announcement in coordination with the town. Lefkowitz said it would inform the public on safety measures, social distancing compliance and other information. They would also use it as an opportunity to send out a positive message of unity. 

“The hardest thing we will have to figure out is how we are going to social distance,” he said. “We are trying to help these main street and small businesses.”

In addition, the task force is looking at ways to ease the reopening process for owners. Capacity and the number of customers a business can serve could play a huge role in how they do so, given the state’s COVID-19 guidelines. 

Lefkowitz said he has been working with the town officials on a way to allow business owners to temporarily extend their store space either by permits, tweaking town code or drafting new legislation. 

“Some businesses might be able to use walkways and put merchandise outside, or they could set up a tent outside in the parking lot,” he said. 

The chamber of commerce president has a draft legislation proposal that would increase the floor area ratio of a business, which would help in making more selling space. 

Lefkowitz said restaurants were just one type of business that could benefit from increase in space. 

“They can be more efficient with indoor and outdoor space,” he said. “Whatever the capacity is, you may have customers that might not feel comfortable going inside.” 

Long Island has taken steps toward reaching Phase 1 of Cuomo’s New York Forward plan for reopening its economy, meeting five of seven benchmarks required by the state. The governor’s plan to reopen consists of four phases which include different categories. Restaurants are in Phase 3. 

“Whatever the capacity is, you may have customers that might not feel comfortable going inside.”

— Charlie Lefkowitz

Michael Ardolino, a past president of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce, said businesses will be facing different challenges when they reopen. 

“How will places like beauty salons and barbershops fare when everyone is in close proximity to each other?” he said. “These owners will want to be able to get their business going.”

Ardolino said he could envision a scenario where those types of businesses take a certain number of customers by appointment only.  

“We will continue to monitor all businesses and may have to plan for what might be a new business climate,” he said.  

Owners hope business reopens sooner rather than later, with summer close by. 

“As the warmer weather gets closer it will be challenging to keep people at bay,” Ransome said. “We have to continue to push government leaders, need to continue to make these phases and hit these benchmarks so we can reopen. We don’t want to be going backward instead of going forward.”

Photo by Kyle Barr

Small businesses are the Atlas of the economy. Too often attention is paid to the huge corporations, whose employment numbers are cited for why they need stimulus in times of crisis. However, when money circulates at the ground level, it tracks among the small businesses, our friends, our neighbors. 

That’s why it’s so disheartening to see a program meant to support those same small businesses first be shuttled through banks who simply weren’t prepared for it, then being abused by large companies it wasn’t made for, and now is seeing constant changes which may make using the loan a kind of poisoned chalice, one that looks appetizing but may just be a death blow to any who drinks from it.

The fact the Payment Protection Program was shunted through banks in the first place was a misstep. Many small business owners complained clients of the banks were given preference (and even among those, larger companies were prioritized). Smaller-sized banks themselves found they had to establish a whole new infrastructure for handling and dealing out these loans.

And then, companies with many more employees nationwide than the requisite 500 or under had received such loans because of loopholes in the lending requirements. Approximately 94 loans were made to publicly traded companies, totaling around $365 million. Reuters reported that well over 70 of these companies which received aid had months of emergency cash on hand to get them over the hump. The loans of up to $10 million were designed to tide over small businesses for eight weeks, rehiring staff in the process. 

A program that started with $349 billion has grown to $669 billion after thousands were left high and dry after the first round of loans. This program that was meant to support small businesses has contorted into a mess of paperwork that has many concerned it will saddle them with debt long term.

Some owners find they have no reason to take on their furloughed labor if none of them wish to return to work anyway. With many fearing the economic impact could last much longer than eight weeks, even more are concerned they may have to lay off employees once again just a short time after spending the funds.

Some businesses have reported anxiety at using the funds at all, fearing that they will somehow make themselves ineligible for the loan turning into a grant. Many businesses rely on independent contractors, but according to loan rules, none of the money received can be used for contract labor.

Politico wrote May 8 that the watchdog agency of the Small Business Administration (the SBA administers the PPP loans) reported the federal agency has strayed away from the original language of the law in creating new restrictions. PPP requires businesses to spend 75 percent of the loan on payroll to get forgiveness and that the balance must be paid back in two years. Both of these bylaws were absent from the original bill.

But questions still weigh heavily on the minds of business owners. Everything most people understand about the loans can still change. 

All this goes to show PPP was unleashed too hastily and clarifications have been much too slow to roll out. Small business owners need specifics and they need guarantees. Guidelines need to be strict enough to avoid scams while keeping in mind the reality of modern day small businesses. 

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) has already called for easing restrictions. Our other local federal representatives must hear owners’ concerns, and then relay those fears to the U.S. Treasury Department and SBA.

These small businesses need that help, because if we lose them, some of the best parts of our communities go with them.

Stock photo

Even as Suffolk County emerges from the worst of the public health crisis from COVID-19, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) expressed concern about the mental health toll the last few weeks has taken on residents.

“Throughout the crisis, we have talked about mental health,” Bellone said on his daily conference call with reporters. “As we move forward, it’s going to become a more important issue.”

People have been reacting to the crisis and helping others. During these stressors, residents have been “going on instinct” and are “exhausted,” Bellone said. “It’s when you start to slow down a bit or move away, that a lot of what you’ve encountered, what you’ve faced can start to manifest itself.”

He anticipates seeing more mental health challenges as the county moves out of this crisis period.

Bellone said he has encouraged residents to contact his office through 311 if they are dealing with mental health challenges, such as depression or anxiety. The Family Service League has provided health care for first responders, health care workers and veterans through a hotline.

The scale of the losses during the pandemic through April has been enormous, Bellone said. With an additional 26 people dying over the last day from complications related to COVID-19, the number of deaths for the county has reached 1,203.

The number of deaths highlights the reason residents in the county need to follow social distancing guidelines and remain at home, to the extent possible. Each day, the county moves closer to the 14-day period during which hospitalizations from COVID-19 decrease, which the county will reach if the declines continue through May 5.

In the last day, 67 fewer people were in the hospital from the virus, bringing the total to 903. Even as some residents were admitted to the hospital, 98 people left the hospital to continue their recoveries at home.

The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit from the virus has also dropped by 20 to 324.

In the last 24 hours, the county has also distributed 37,000 personal protective equipment, bringing the total to over 3.1 million since the pandemic reached Long Island.

Suffolk Forward Business Programs

Separately, the county executive announced a program to support small businesses called Suffolk Forward. Designed with Stony Brook University College of Business, the programs were created to help Suffolk County businesses respond to the current economic reality and develop ways to use resources.

Businesses will have the chance to gather information about new ways to increase revenue, build on their technology tools, refine business models, and receive individualized expert business advice.

Suffolk County and its partners will send a needs assessment survey to the restaurant, retail, and construction industries. After reading the replies, Stony Brook University will provide needed services and will report and track the results.

The first effort is the Suffolk Forward Gift Card Platform, which provides a one stop shop for Suffolk County residents to pre-purchase goods and services to support local retail and services businesses during the pandemic. The platform, which was created by Huntington-based eGifter, is free for businesses to participate. To purchase gift cards online, or to have your business feature on the web platform, click here.

The second initiative is the Suffolk Forward Job Board, which provides Suffolk County Residents with access to regional job opportunities and businesses with a pool of applicants seeking new jobs. Suffolk County will provide new details over time.

The last three initiative, Tech Enhancement Program, the Suffolk Forward “Pandemic Shift” Business Workshops, and the Suffolk Forward Virtual Expert Network, provide small businesses with Stony Brook support and education services.

Through the Tech Enhancement Program, local businesses can identify their business technology needs and Stony Brook University business, computer science and IT students, under the direction of faculty, will assess the technology needs of each business and advise the owners. Technology can help businesses reopen during the pandemic and stay open.

The Suffolk Forward “Pandemic Shift” Business Workshops, which are coordinated by the Stony Brook University College of Business, offer a series of four 90-minute video workshops and peer support to help small businesses deal with four key steps: hope, survival, focus and pivot.

The Suffolk Forward Virtual Expert Network provides small businesses with complimentary consultation via virtual office hours with Stony Brook University College of Business professors. The free sessions aim to provide business leaders with the tools that could help them tackle ongoing business challenges.

New York Closes All Schools Until End of School Year

With the question hanging above educators heads for the past month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) finally announced all schools in the state will remain closed until the end of the school year due to the ongoing pandemic. The decision applies to both grade school and higher education, and will mandate the use of distance learning for the next several months.

“Teachers did a phenomenal job stepping up to do this,” Cuomo said. “We made the best of a situation.”

The governor added with the number of school districts and children, it mandates precautions to protect young and old during the pandemic. He said it would not be possible to create a system that would socially distance children while also transporting them and keeping them in schools.

The decision also waives the requirement districts have 180 days of learning per school year.

Regarding in-person summer school, the governor said a decision will be made by the end of May.

On the topic of summer camps, Cuomo said just as he was leaving the press briefing that “whatever regional decision will also apply to the summer camps.”

SC Supervisors Discuss Summer

Meanwhile, the Suffolk County Supervisors Association announced a joint planning effort with three Nassau County Town Supervisors to develop ways to coordinate summer programs across all 13 towns. The group, which Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer is leading, is known as the Nassau/ Suffolk County Summer Operations Task Force.

The group, which met on Zoom for the first time today, dealt with a number of issues. They wanted to ensure consistent social distancing guidelines across communities.

They also planned to sync the timing of beach, park and facilities as much as they could, to ensure variation among areas doesn’t lead to a surge in crowding at any location. If they needed to close beaches, they also wanted to prevent crowds from forming in any town.

Uniform policies for beach usage, park activity and playground policies will ensure the safest approach to these areas, the supervisors said.

The group announced a goal of May 18 to issue guidelines the towns could agree on.

“Just as we consider the shared service model for other purposes, from purchasing to relieving overcrowding at our animal shelters, inconsistency in policies can lead to greater demand and greater risk at a single location, which we intend to avoid as the purpose of this collaboration,” said Town of Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R). “Each Town has something to offer from our parks and beaches to our waterfront facilities — we want our residents and their families to enjoy everything our Towns have to offer without adding unnecessary risk.”

Beaches Open for Hiking and Jogging, not Swimming

Meanwhile, Brookhaven Town will open West Meadow, Cedar in Mount Sinai and Corey in Blue Point.

The Town is not opening the beach at these locations. Prohibited items and activities include chairs, umbrellas, blankets, coolers, fishing, congregating and any sporting activity. Dogs are also not allowed. No lifeguards will be on duty.

Residents will be allowed to walk, hike, and jog at these beaches as long as they maintain social distancing. Masks are recommended. Parking will be limited to 50% of capacity. Code enforcement and parks staff will maintain parking limits and patrol areas to ensure social distancing compliance.

The rules allow for passive uses only. People can’t congregate or engage in sports activities, or use playground equipment. People are also not allowed to shake hands or engage in any unnecessary physical contact. There is no fishing, swimming, blankets, coolers, umbrellas or beach chairs. Social distancing requires six feet between people who don’t live in the same home.  When residents can’t social distance, they have to wear face coverings.

Residents with coughs or fever are not permitted. The restrooms are closed. The town encourages people to limit their stays to allow other residents to enjoy the areas. Once the maximum 50% capacity is reached in the parking lots, they will close. As cars leave, others can visit.

With additional reporting by Rita Egan and Kyle Barr

All businesses with under 500 employees can apply for the federal loan to rehire employees, but some have experienced issues. Stock photo

Businesses are looking for sanctuary during the absolute tumult caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. However, some say even with the federal government’s attempt to help keep employees on payroll and businesses running, some question when their submissions will be processed, while others question how much it would help.

The $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program, which passed congress in March as part of the $2 trillion CARES Act relief bill, was made to offer businesses with 500 employees or less loans up to $10 million specifically to keep on or rehire employees. This is partly to keep those shops afloat while revenues have plummeted and to keep people from being forced to go on unemployment. New York’s unemployment system, in particular, has been overwhelmed, with over 600,000 claims processes and another 200,000 still in partial status. Many people report having to call the unemployment offices dozens or even 100s of times and not getting a response. 

“How can you expect us to bring employees back full force if you’re not allowing us to open the doors?”

— James Luciano

But as Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and other states are starting to meet to discuss a timeline for bringing everything back online, businesses still await the loans that will essentially enable them to rehire those employees. 

For others, the loans may be too late. Bernie Ryba, the director of the Stony Brook Small Business Development Center, said by the center’s estimates there could be as many as 25 percent of restaurants across the country saying they have likely closed permanently. Another 25 percent, he said, could be also looking at shutting their doors.

“If you have, in the restaurant industry, 12 million that are employed, you’re looking at 6 million that will never go back to work,” he said.

That’s why applying for the PPP loans early is so important, not to mention that the money could eventually run out, though congress is in talks of supplementing the program with additional funds.

The PPP loans of up to $10 million would normally have to be paid off with a 1 percent interest rate over two years, but if 75 percent of funds are used for payroll, keeping staff to pre-pandemic levels for eight weeks after the loan is disbursed, then the loans will be forgiven.

Ryba said it is incredibly important for businesses to apply as soon as possible, adding there have been some businesses who reported to him receiving funds already. However, for businesses who have applied and haven’t heard anything back about their applications, some owners are left with a bad taste in their mouths.

Several have complained the rules of the loan were not well explained, and the timeline for when money can and will be disbursed is hanging in the air, all the while business owners can only sit around in the anxiety of not knowing.

Roger Rutherford, the general manager of Roger’s Frigate in Port Jeff and the president of the PJ Business Improvement District, related it to the disaster loans after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when he said it took him two years and multiple meetings before he ever saw a dime from the federal government. Though he said the timeline for these loans should be much shorter than that disaster, he said his daily calls have not yet resulted in word on the loan.

James Luciano, the owner of the Port Jeff Lobster House and BID secretary, said he, along with most business owners he knows, have applied for the PPP loan. However, he said it could be weeks before he even hears his application was processed, and the guidelines were not clear on what he would get or have to repay. 

“They’re keeping up this thing to bring employees back, but how can you expect us to bring employees back full force if you’re not allowing us to open the doors?” he said.

The government has clarified that employees would have to be rehired to levels as of Feb. 15 by June 30.

Such need for clarifications has been constant from the federal government. Problems with the program started on day one, according to the Wall Street Journal which wrote that the nation’s largest banks were unable to take loan applications when it launched April 3 because the government did not send them application documentation until the previous night. Ryba said the institution of the program “took lenders by surprise,” with many having only one week to prepare top accept applicants. 

Some businesses have also had issues applying for the loan, especially if they were affiliated with smaller community banks that are not certified with the federal Small Business Administration as an approved lender. Other larger regional and national banks, Ryba said, have focused more on their own customers who do business with them, not even those who may only use the bank to deposit.

“This is very different from 2008 — now you see banks and borrowers working together.”

— Charlie Lefkowitz

In such cases, applying for the loan requires different documentation.

The PPP is just one of several loan systems businesses have been applying to in this time of crisis. The Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance is supposed to loan businesses up to $10,000 in economic relief. The loan wouldn’t have to be repaid, though. Nationally, businesses have told outlets like The New York Times that such funding has all but dried up.

Luciano said he has received an email saying his PPP loan was approved and to expect paperwork in the next five business days. However, he added he has heard nothing about his disaster loan application, and his accountant told him he “did not expect anyone to see that money.”

In a conference call with businesses March 26, before the final bill was signed, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) held a conference call with local businesses along with the Long Island branch manager of the Small Business Administration Robert Piechota. Piechota said at the time while the bill had yet to be signed, in normal times such loans would take around 21 days for the application to be processed, and another five for the money to be released. 

“In good times you’re looking at a month,” he said.

Jennifer Dzvonar, the owner of Bass Electric in Port Jefferson Station and president of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce, said there is much misinformation out there on the internet, and the best choice for anyone looking to get the loan is to go to the SBA website.

Despite not yet hearing of a single business that has yet received any funds from the loans, Charlie Lefkowitz, the president of the Three Village Chamber of Commerce, said there has been a general effort on all levels, whether its regional government down to the community level, to help these businesses in their time of need.

“This is very different from 2008 — now you see banks and borrowers working together,” he said. “This is unprecedented, and across our community … you’re seeing cooperation on all levels.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin speaks up on behalf of local anglers at Mascot Dock in Patchogue April 8 to refuse the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission’s decision to cut the state’s sea bass allocation. Photo from Lee Zeldin’s office

Local anglers aren’t taking the marine fisheries commission’s bait.

After learning the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission decided it would cut New York’s sea bass allocation quota by 12 percent while increasing that of neighboring states, small business owners and local fisherman joined forces with politicians to make a plea in Patchogue.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) was with state Assemblyman Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue) April 9 at Mascot Dock to take what they called an aggressive stand against an unfair decision, saying the cut is coming even though black sea bass stock has rebounded — currently 240 percent greater than target biomass, or the volume of organisms in a given area. By issuing its own set of regulations for black sea bass fishing this season and entering into non-compliance, the state can take a stand against what many are saying is an inequitable decision that could further harm New York’s already struggling anglers.

“Going into non-compliance is never the first option, but it may be the only one in taking a stand for New York anglers who year after year continue to get screwed,” Zeldin said. “With the vast majority of Long Island fishing taking place in waters shared with New Jersey and Connecticut — such as the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound — it is unfair that New York anglers are, once again, being penalized with smaller fishing quotas than neighboring states.”

He pointed to the fact that two boats fishing could be sitting next to each other with one allowed to catch up to double the amount of the others.

“The hard working recreational fishing community is rallied together in an attempt to keep New York anglers on par with its neighboring states,” said Huntington captain James Schneider. “The Sea Bass stocks are extremely healthy. This is a valuable resource for all the citizens to utilize, just like the corn in Iowa and oil in Alaska.”

Long Island’s largest one-day fishing event also took place at St. Joseph’s College the same day in Patchogue, bringing together fishermen and stakeholders of Long Island’s maritime economy from across the Island.

New York State plans to sue the federal government if it loses an appeal against the restrictions on the recreational fishery for black sea bass, state officials have said. Last year, the state of New Jersey successfully fought quota restrictions on fluke and won once going before the U.S. secretary of commerce.

“The people of the marine district of New York will not accept or endorse any options with a cut to our sea bass regulations in 2018,” Center Moriches captain Joe Tangel said. “The time is now for the state, it’s stakeholders, and our representatives to take a stand.”

DEC marine resources chief Jim Gilmore warned that noncompliance, if rejected by federal regulators, could lead to a shortened or eliminated season for 2019 if there is overfishing this year.