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Smithtown

Doug and Kelly Jansson have been chronicling Doug’s near-death experience with the virus, and want people to know it can happen to anyone. Photo from Kelly Jansson

Doug Jansson hasn’t been home in over six weeks, and his story is being heard all around the world. 

Right now, the lead pastor of Living Word Church in Hauppauge is in the Intensive Care Unit at Stony Brook University Hospital, said his wife Kelly Jansson. But the good news is he’s alive and heading toward recovery after a terrifying battle with COVID-19. 

On Nov. 30, the Jansson family tested positive for the virus. After 10 days, his wife said, Doug was getting worse so they called an ambulance.

“I got a phone call the day before Christmas Eve that he was declining,” Kelly said, her voice breaking. “They didn’t think he was going to make it.”

Doug, a healthy, athletic 42-year-old father of three from Smithtown, shouldn’t have gotten the virus, she said. 

“I think I remember him being sick only a handful of times in the 20 years we’ve been married,” she said. “When we got COVID, he was worried about me — nobody was worried about him getting hit this hard.”

Kelly said the next day he was put on a ventilator. “He was not doing well,” she said. “They weren’t sure if he was going to make it half the day.”

But she said the doctors and nurses at SBUH have been “amazing” toward her husband and family.

“I got a phone call saying they had a plan to save his life,” she said. 

Doug spent six days on life support and 13 on a ventilator. Eventually he was moved to the ICU where he sent his wife a text after more than two weeks.

“It was the best day of my life — it was incredible,” she said. 

Doug Jansson. Photo from Kelly Jansson

After being in the ICU for not even two days, he began complaining of severe pain. A CT scan revealed a pleural effusion (fluid in the chest), a secondary pneumonia, pleurisy and a small pneumothorax (air in the chest). His right lung collapsed.

Early on in the battle, Kelly — who isn’t on social media herself — decided to update Doug’s Facebook friends on his page, chronicling what was going on inside the hospital walls. His story has been shared hundreds of times thus far. 

“That’s Doug’s personality,” she said. “He’s so down-to-earth and real — I knew people would pray for him knowing what was happening.”

And the prayers are working. Throughout his illness, members from Doug’s church made it known they were praying for him.

Early on in the pandemic, Doug organized prayer parades around the hospitals. He held drive-in services to eliminate in-person gatherings. Now, he’s the one receiving prayers.

“I’ve gotten messages from people in other countries saying they’re standing and praying for him,” she said. “Now that Doug is fully awake and reading all these comments on Facebook with such encouraging words, he is so blown away that this was happening.”

Although Doug is still in the ICU, he’s stable. His oxygen levels are gradually going up, his voice is coming back and he can FaceTime with his family and friends from his hospital bed. He said that God was watching out for him these last six weeks, and that all the support from his neighbors and strangers has been emotional for him. 

“It’s been incredible,” he said. “All these random people praying for us, believing in us and praying to get me out of here … it literally brings tears to my eyes.”

Doug said he is so thankful for being able to tell his story, especially since he almost lost his life.

“There’s always hope in God,” he said. “During impossible situations, he comes through.”

His wife said it’s not over yet, and he has a long battle ahead of him. “But every day is a step forward, and any step forward is a significant step.”

While his titles are father, pastor, husband and son, Kelly said she has another name for him now.

“There is no doubt this is a miracle — God responded and did something,” she said. “I call him Miracle Man … God did this.”

Fairfield at St. James residents wanted to help the Smithtown community by gathering and donating tons of groceries to those suffering from food insecurity. Photo from Nicole Garguilo

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, everyday people felt that it was their civic duties to step up and make a difference. Some made masks, some drove around supplies, others gathered food for those who were hungry. 

Many of these people had jobs, families and their own struggles at home, but they knew they wanted to be a part of something bigger. They chose early on what side of history they were going to be on, the side that helped others and made a difference. 

“The sacrifice everyone made was apparent,” Carmela Newman with Operation Headband, said. “I grew tenfold from working with such amazing people.”

Operation Headband started out when Newman’s friends at local hospitals said their ears were red and raw from wearing uncomfortable masks all day. An avid sewer, she would volunteer and help sew costumes for local theater productions before the pandemic. 

“Me and my sewing buddy Bernice Daly put buttons on headbands and attached the elastic from the face masks, so it was off their ears,” she said. 

Then it took off. Her nurse friends began requesting them, first at Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson and then at Stony Brook University Hospital. Quickly, hospitals and facilities across Long Island were reaching out to Newman and her sewing friends in hopes they could get these comfortable accessories. The demand became so high that they ended up making a Facebook group and recruited other volunteers. 

The Ronkonkoma native said she couldn’t have done this alone. Newman credits Terry Ginzberg, Peter Graber, Teresa Mattison and Jeffrey Sanzel for being part of the team. 

“It was a fabrication of everyone coming together,” she said, the pun being intentional. “Everyone jumped on board to help. We became fast friends and family.”

Toward the end of the first wave of the pandemic, Newman said Operation Headband created 6,000 headbands and bandanas overall. Over 40 people volunteered to deliver the items while 15 sewers put the pieces together. In a little over four months, the group’s headbands helped health care professionals from the East End to Manhattan, in seven different states and made their way overseas to the U.K. “The group cared so much to be a part of this horrific thing that was out of our control,” she said. “There was no way we weren’t going to do this.”

Volunteers from LIOSMS. Photo from Kassay

Although it seems that everywhere one looks now there are masks, early on they were hard to find. That’s why Port Jefferson resident, one who would later become village trustee, Rebecca Kassay, started up a volunteer group that delivered over 40,000 PPE and comfort-care items to essential workers. 

Long Island Open Source Medical Supplies-Nassau and Suffolk County is celebrated for creating a Facebook group of hundreds of volunteers across the Island who gathered, purchased, created, donated and delivered PPE for frontline workers. 

“From mid-June through September, we continued to accept donations of PPE from makers, as well as connecting volunteers who want to continue making them to community groups that will get PPE to low-income families and students in school districts, individuals in shelters, Indigenous populations and other at-risk groups,” Kassay said.

More than 300 seamstresses, crafters and makers made and donated more than 15,000 face masks, 2,800 caps, 5,000 face shields, 12,000 ear savers and over 10,000 comfort-care items. Their fleet of 68 volunteer drivers worked hard to deliver the homemade PPE to over 130 facilities and collaborated with other volunteer groups by donating and exchanging fabric and materials.

It started when Kassay, with other local volunteers, began to see the demand for PPE and the need for help in hospitals. Her home, The Fox and Owl Inn in Port Jeff, became “the hub” that got things going. She and her fellow volunteers created a group that allowed people to communicate with one another with extraordinary teamwork. 

“After about a week it was growing so fast,” she said. “It ended up with 10 administrators managing a couple of hundred volunteers, selling masks, driving around materials, donating 3D-printed face shields, communicating with hospitals. The effort was to make everything much more efficient.”

But she said she truly couldn’t have done it alone. 

“Eleni Stamatinos was the mask coordinator and also helped train and coordinate with the other administrators,” Kassay said, adding that Stamatinos would work alongside her for 10-14 hours a day. “She has grown to be a dear friend of mine. While there has been immense tragedy during the pandemic, we have found beauty in the connections that might not have happened otherwise.”

And then there were volunteers she worked with, who spent hours helping out. 

“There are also countless Port Jefferson and surrounding area residents who contributed more time, heart and materials than I could’ve ever hoped for,” Kassay said. “We were driven by the satisfaction of bringing comfort to others. Other opportunities and priorities were pushed aside because of the urgency we all felt in the moment, and none of us regret it.”

While masks and other PPE were needed for frontline workers and the rest of the community, other volunteers dedicated their time at home to feed those who are struggling with food insecurity.

Fairfield at St. James residents donated tons of food. Photo from Nicole Garguilo

Nicole Garguilo, public information officer with the Town of Smithtown, said Fairfield at St. James, a senior living community, stepped up to help.

“They knew that they were high risk for the virus, but still wanted to help,” she said. “So, every month they’d get in a car caravan together, loaded up with nonperishables and meet us at the Gyrodyne parking lot.”

The town then delivered the food to Island Harvest of Hauppauge on their behalf. 

“It was really something to see our seniors put helping others in need before their own safety,” Garguilo said.

Carol Walsh, an 82-year-old resident at the community, was just one of the dozens of seniors who wanted to help.

“I know there are so many people who are hungry,” she said. “The feeling of isolation is so overwhelming, and people forget that others are out there who want to care and make people feel better. If we can make people smile and provide food it’s worth it.”

Walsh said their food caravans would often have between six and eight cars full of food. In September and October, they donated their collection to Island Harvest, but this month they brought more goods to the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry. 

Denise Tortore & Rosane Ackley at Mather Hospital with Meals on Wheels. Photo from Meals on Wheels

And while these seniors collected nonperishables, the local chapter of Meals on Wheels brought hot and cold meals to those who were unable to leave their homes. 

Barbara Siegel said the Three Village Meals on Wheels group consists of about 150 volunteers and has been delivering food to those in need five days a week for 38 years.

Partnering with the kitchens at Port Jefferson’s Mather and St. Charles hospitals and Setauket Village Diner, a cold lunch and a hot dinner are delivered to people who are homebound. Siegel said that other chapters of Meals on Wheels had to temporarily shut down during the pandemic but not the Stony Brook operation, which covers from St. James, across the North Shore into Mount Sinai, down into Coram and toward Lake Grove. 

“We got more calls during pandemic,” Siegel said. 

And although Siegel thanks and appreciates all the volunteers who gave up their free time to drive around Suffolk County delivering these dishes, she said it wouldn’t have been possible without the office staff coordinating it all: Ruth Spear, Ronnie Kreitzer and Linda Bernstein.

Siegel said Spear is a caring individual, always cheerful when someone calls the office, willing to help them with whatever inquiry they have. Bernstein takes care of the financial side of things, while Kreitzer coordinates the driver routes. 

“The three ladies that are in the office are just invaluable — they never stop,” Siegel said. “They go to sleep at night and their heads are still going thinking about tomorrow. They do it from their heart and soul.”

But Spear was modest, saying it was a collaborative team effort.

“It’s just our job,” she said.

Kathleen Weinberger, Aramark Nutrition Services food service director with Kings Park school district, helped feed hundreds of students throughout the pandemic.

Aramark Nutrition Services delivering food. Photo from Weinberger

Weinberger said that at the start of the pandemic, she reacted and considered what the safest way to help families would be during the crisis. Aramark employees worked alongside the school district to incorporate a breakfast and lunch grab-and-go window at the high school. They also incorporated a Meals on Wheels bus delivery system with district bus drivers to those families who had no means of transportation.

From March 16 until June 30, they distributed 28,406 meals, seven days a week.

“There were many special moments from seeing their smiles on their faces and the wonderful handwritten ‘thank you’ notes and pictures drawn by the kids that really warmed my heart,” Weinberger said. 

The Kings Park resident said it’s important to consider others, not just during a crisis but every day. 

“People should gather together in good times, as well as difficult times, as it makes stronger ties within the community,” she said. “I’m willing to do whatever I can to lend a helping hand.”

An inside look at Smithtown school libraries. Photo from district

School libraries are looking a little different nowadays.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smithtown Central School District had to revamp its library protocols, said Vincenza Graham, director of world languages, ESL & library media services. Like many districts across Long Island, new initiatives have changed how students take out books, read and learn.

“Pandemic or not, libraries are used to constant change,” Catherine Masrour, a librarian at High School West, said. “For years, libraries have been evolving as a result of the rise in access to digital information and the constant and ever-changing world of technological innovations.”

Masrour said that as librarians, they are constantly looking at their students’ needs, trying to provide them with the best resources to be successful — including in a virtual world. 

Students distanced by barriers at Smithtown High School West. Photo from Smithtown School District

“I felt so proud last week when one of my students contacted me to share the news of her college acceptance,” she said. “She thanked me for helping her with her college essay last spring via several Google Meets, and then again, this fall just before she submitted her final application. Hearing the excitement in this student’s voice gave me one more reason to say that I love what I am doing.”

Smithtown elementary schools began virtual programs and fully remote options to students and had to revamp book circulation to keep the library safe for students and staff.

“This system has required the students to truly look beyond the cover of a story, and many have shared that they wouldn’t have taken out some of the books they truly enjoyed if they hadn’t utilized this system,” said Ellie Eichenlaub, a librarian at Dogwood Elementary School and Smithtown West High School. “While this school year has brought some unique challenges, it is nice to reflect on some of the good that it has brought to our students.”

And when staff was back at school in September, Michelle Robinson, a librarian at Tackan Elementary School, said her students wanted to pick up right where they left off in March.

“My fourth-graders were asking if we were going to continue working with author Robin Newman as we did in third grade, and my fifth-graders were asking if we were going to work on our Summer Olympics sport research project that we began at the end of February of fourth grade,” she said. “It made me realize how much they had missed our library as well.”

Keely Schuppert, a librarian at St. James Elementary School, said librarians at her level are in a unique situation of being able to watch their students grow as readers each year from kindergarten through fifth grade.

“It’s the greatest feeling to be able to provide a student with a book they’ve really been wanting to read,” she said. “With masks being a necessity, we have all become very skilled at reading our students’ eyes. It’s the beautiful glimmer in a child’s eyes that reminds me why I love what I do each and every day.” 

Middle schoolers have been able to take out e-books through a new digital platform and are gaining access to print resources by placing holds on books via the library catalog, according to director Graham.

“After our revamped library orientation for sixth-graders, one student asked if we had any manga [Japanese publications],” said Sheila Tobin Cavooris, a librarian at Great Hollow Middle School. “She was so excited when I showed her our graphic format collection, and her enthusiasm was echoed by a number of other students who shared her interest.”

Accompsett Middle School librarian Donna DeLuca said that while sixth-grade orientation was a bit challenging this year, she wanted to keep things as close to normal as possible. 

“At AMS, we had our usual scavenger hunt throughout the library to learn about the different sections and resources available,” she said. “In each section, students recorded themselves talking about what they learned. Even though we followed mask, social distancing and ‘no touch’ guidelines, students were so happy to be up and about and not sitting in front of a screen.”

The human touch is still all important. “When I run after-hours office hours through Google Meet, sometimes from 8 to 9 at night, the kids are appreciative to see a friendly face, happy to be able to ask questions and relieved to know the library safety net is still there,” Smithtown High School East librarian Jean Marie Kliphuis said. “I’ve always told them that our job is to support their work, and whether we are digital or in person, that hasn’t changed.”

Stock photo

Local school districts are still maintaining low COVID-19 numbers, while the rest of Suffolk County is nearing 6% in some areas. According to district leadership, that’s because schools have been constantly evolving their plans to keep students, staff and the community safe.

Centereach High School in the Middle Country School District. The district superintendent is just one of many continuing to keep students safe. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Middle Country school district covers a large jurisdiction, Dr. Roberta Gerold, superintendent of schools, said. In non-COVID times, there are roughly 11,000 students within the district, though now approximately 7,500 are in buildings due to hybrid and remote learning options. The district has only had 102 positive COVID cases since the start of school, a 1.3% infection rate — with 52 of those cases coming from Thanksgiving break.

“We have such strong guidelines we’re containing it, not spreading it,” she said. “We know where [students and staff have] been and who they’ve been with.”

Like all the other districts, students are required to wear a mask at all times, except during mask breaks. Social distancing has been implemented with barriers on desks, and teachers are asked to keep their windows and doors open.

If a student is showing symptoms, they are immediately placed into an isolation room and brought home.

But that barely happens, according to Gerold. “The community is doing a good job because they’re not sending us positive kids,” she said. “We’re not getting a lot of cases in the schools.”

Ronald Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said that over the summer, local superintendents began putting together plans to better prepare their districts.

“When the pandemic started, there was a feeling of uncertainty,” he said. “But now what we’ve found is we could place a great deal on social distancing.”

Because they have been implementing and following CDC guidelines, he said they’re not seeing spread within the schools.

“Controlled environment helps keep the community safe,” he said. “Even if we see the community numbers rise, I think the government, politicians, leadership and superintendents know how important keeping schools open is.”

A representative from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) office agreed, and said the new guidelines released last month are to keep the doors of local schools open.

“We encourage them to not be closed, but to test instead,” they said.

Guidelines now require mass testing in schools in red, orange and yellow micro-cluster zones before they reopen, followed by vigilant symptom and exposure screening conducted daily. Impacted schools can reopen as early as Monday, however students and faculty must be able to provide a negative COVID-19 test result prior to going back to the classroom. New York State will provide rapid test kits for schools wishing to participate.

After a school reopens in a red or orange micro-cluster zone, vigilant symptom and exposure screening must be conducted daily. A quarter of the in-person learning school community — both students and faculty/staff — must be tested per week, and the school should ensure that it provides opportunities to test on school grounds, or otherwise facilitates testing and accepts test results from health care providers.

If the school does not hold a testing event or provide testing on school grounds, test results provided to the school as part of the 25% testing of the population must be received within seven days.

The governor’s representative said that no regions have hit the 9% emergency number, which would close the county again. Schools, however, have flexibility regarding choosing a comfortable closing percentage.

“They can use their own metrics to close down districts or schools as long as those metrics don’t go against the state mandate of 9%,” the representative said. “A lot of things are state law governed. Schools are done by the locals, and we wanted to be within the local district rules.”

The latest number of confirmed and new COVID-19 cases in the Town of Brookhaven, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services on Dec. 7 is 17,307, while a school district like Shoreham-Wading River has seen just a total of 43 positive tests for students and teachers/staff as at Dec. 8.

“I would like to thank our parents, staff and students for implementing the required COVID-19 health protocols this year. The daily temperature checks, health screening forms and conversations about washing hands, wearing masks properly and socially distancing have been really effective in keeping or schools open, healthy and safe,” said Superintendent Gerard Poole in an email statement. “The district is fully prepared for a shift to distance learning if a closure is mandated. We have a great distance learning plan and have already shifted this year successfully for a day or two when necessary due to COVOD-19 related school closures.“

File photo of Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan. Photo by Kyle Barr

Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said that they are hopeful to remain on their current course, but are prepared to pivot their instructional models as directed by the governor’s office.

“Moving forward, our schools will continue to follow the guidance provided at the local, regional and state levels, including any prescribed steps needed should our area become designed a yellow, orange or red zone,” she said. “We are grateful to our students, staff and community for their unwavering support of and adherence to our initiatives. Their collective efforts have helped to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within our schools and allowed us to keep our buildings open for in-person instruction.”

Marianne Cartisano, superintendent of Miller Place school district, said schools, to date, are the safest places for children to succeed academically, socially and emotionally.

“We are also fortunate to have the acknowledgement of social responsibility in our community, coupled with everyone’s common goal to keep schools open,” she said.

The latest number of confirmed and new COVID-19 cases in the Town of Brookhaven, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services on Dec. 7 is 17,307, while a school district like Three Village has seen just a total of 72 positive tests for students and teachers/staff as at Dec. 8.

“Our district continues to follow the guidance of the Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Cheryl Pedisich, Three Village superintendent of schools, said. “We are fully prepared to implement any prescribed measures to keep our schools open, safe and operating in the best interest of all of our students and staff.”

Elwood school district Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Bossert said he agrees with statements made by Cuomo and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a recent joint press conference.

“Governor Cuomo used the words ‘amazing and astonishing’ to describe how low the infection rates are in schools as compared to many of the communities surrounding them,” Bossert said. “We agree that our schools are safe places for students, faculty and staff. The guidelines that have been put in place in collaboration with the Suffolk County Department of Health are designed to keep students and staff safe and school open.”

Bossert said in addition to mask wearing, distancing and appropriate hygiene, it’s important for those who are symptomatic or think they have been exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 to stay home.

“We are so very thankful to our parents and community members for demonstrating an understanding of the role we each play and acting out of an abundance of caution when making decisions about their children,” he said. “We are confident that we can keep students safe in our school buildings — where we know they will enjoy the greatest benefit of our instruction program, socialization with one another, and have positive interactions with their teachers.”

Smithtown school district superintendent, Mark Secaur, said he is planning for several different scenarios, including the potential of COVID testing in schools, or going back to completely remote.

“Based on the relative safety of our students and staff, providing education for those two things has been at odd at times,” he said. “But it’s the balance we have to navigate because of the pandemic.”

“We have proven that schools are safer than the outside community,” Secaur added. “Kids have been amazing. They’re excited to be with their friends again, and the kids have been more resilient than some adults.”

 

Matthew Mazza and Jerry Varrichio flank their instructor Walter Vendura as they receive their black belts Nov. 21. Photo by Julianne Mosher

They love coming to their martial arts classes on Saturdays.

“Matt can’t wait to go to karate,” his father Jim Mazza said. “He’s disappointed when he can’t come or if there’s no class that week.”

Jerry Varrichio and Matthew Mazza sporting their new black belts. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Matt Mazza, of Smithtown, and Stony Brook resident Jerry Varrichio are both 19 and on the autism spectrum. They began their martial arts journey a decade ago at Long Island Traditional Tae Kwon Do under the leadership of grandmaster Walter Vendura, owner and head instructor of the martial arts studio. 

On Saturday, Nov. 21, both Mazza and Varrichio earned their first black belts. 

In a three-hour presentation, the two students presented their moves and skills to a small group of family and friends. They’ve been practicing two-to-three times a week, according to Vendura, since they were little kids.

Originally located in East Setauket, Vendura and his team chose to close their doors due to COVID-19 back in March, but that didn’t stop them from continuing the practice of martial arts elsewhere.

Matthew Mazza kicks a wood plant to earn his first-ever black belt. Photo by Julianne Mosher

During the summer, they began renting out space on the third floor of the Port Jefferson Village Center every Saturday. With masks on and limited in number, the students would continue to learn balance, find strength and break wood planks just as they did before. 

Vendura said he has made it his mission to welcome and train individuals of all abilities. Over his 50-year career practicing martial arts, he recently earned his own 8th degree black belt, while also training students at various levels of skills. The instructor has taught people who are blind and deaf, as well as those on the autism spectrum.

“We care about the growth of the student,” Vendura said. “We hope we can encourage them to continue the leadership within themselves, not only in martial arts but in life.”

Both families of the new black belt holders said they originally had trouble finding a studio that was accommodating and welcoming to students with disabilities. 

“They understand him,” Jim Mazza said. “It’s not just about the money — they care.”

Varrichio embraces his dad after receiving his belt. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Kathleen Mazza, Matt’s mother, added that the Tae Kwon Do studio was able to reach her son on an entirely different level. 

“They have a unique skill that no one else has,” she said. “They have knowledge, patience and understanding about people on the autism spectrum.”

Josephine Varrichio agreed, saying her son has grown so much during his time practicing martial arts. 

“Despite all the obstacles and his disability, we’re so proud of him and how far he has come,” she said. “No one here ever gave up on him.”

Mazza embraces his mom after receiving his belt. Photo by Julianne Mosher

And that hard work paid off. With the accomplishment of receiving their first-ever black belts, the two had fun all the way. 

“Breaking the board was my favorite,” Matt Mazza said. “I like sidekicks and I like coming to karate.”

The owner of The Oasis club in Smithtown is in talks with town officials to negotiate a sale of the building. Photo by Donna Deedy

Smithtown landmarks have changed regularly throughout the centuries, but one town staple has basically remained the same for decades. The Town of Smithtown is hoping to do something about that — changing a topless bar to a place where families can enjoy recreational time on the water.

If the Smithtown Town Board’s proposed plans go through, The Oasis Gentlemen’s Club, across from the iconic bull statue, may become part of a town park through condemnation. The issue was discussed at an Oct. 27 special town meeting and public hearing via Zoom. The club sits on two lots of land that are the equivalent of a fifth of an acre. Smithtown hopes to acquire the property to use for a public park that will have waterfront access to the Nissequogue River that sits right behind it, joining up with what is now a county park slightly east of Oasis.

If all goes as planned, Smithtown will make a park swap with Suffolk County. The county will acquire the town’s Bill Richards Park next to Blydenburgh County Park, while Suffolk will hand over Paul T. Given County Park to Smithtown.

During the Oct. 27 special meeting, Peter Hans, Smithtown planning director, said the Oasis property is zoned for neighborhood business. The planning director said the structure predates an assessment done by the town in 1947. That year, it was listed as Cliff’s Tavern Barroom. Hans said the building is not on the historic sites inventory.

During the meeting, the planning director pointed to other county and town parks in the vicinity of the building and said Smithtown is updating its Local Waterfront Revitalization Program. He added that in 1989 the Town Board adopted the program which includes the Oasis parcel for acquisition for conservation.

“It is located in an environmentally sensitive area,” he said. “You have the river directly adjacent. There’s a sanitary system on the property, and if the property were redeveloped, there’s potential to remove or update the sanitary system. So, as it stands right now, we’re just in the concept stage, but there is potential to redevelop the whole waterfront around the whole area for park purposes.”

Thomas Murray, from Pelham Manor who has owned the business and property since 2002, spoke at the meeting. Murray said he paid for an appraisal in December 2017, and the town attorney countered with another around a year later. He said since then “no offer has been forthcoming since I started this process in 2017.” However, he is still open to negotiating with the town to avoid any litigation.

Murray said all taxes and bills have been made timely, the bar hasn’t caused many problems relative to other bars and there is a tenant upstairs who maintains the property.

“Residents of the area have and are employed at the business, depending on the employment for their livelihood,” he said. “I conduct business with other companies in the area, which helps improve the local economy.”

He added, “I would say going back to the Bull Creek, this bar has been a safe rite of passage for many in the area.”

The building has been used for adult entertainment since 1979 and was once named the Bull Creek Inn. Members of the Facebook group “You know you’re from Smithtown, New York if:” also remember the business having names such as Habitat and Rosebuds after Cliff’s Tavern Barroom was no longer in business.

Town of Smithtown spokesperson Nicole Garguilo said discussions about an acquisition began in 2018.

“In May of 2019, the Town commissioned an appraisal and presented our valuation to the property owner and his attorney in or about September 2019,” she said. “In January of 2020, the town received a counter-offer for an amount that simply could not be justified given the town’s appraisal.  Later that month the town commissioned a condemnation appraisal for the property.”
The town has 90 days after the Oct. 27 public hearing to make a decision.

Little ballerinas wear their masks and stay in their special boxes to maintain social distancing at Chance to Dance in Setauket. Photo by Julianne Mosher

They all decided to think outside the box when it comes to socially distanced dancing. 

When dance studios across Long Island had to close their doors at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic back in March, owners were concerned about what that meant for their studios. 

Ballerinas at Backstage Studio of Dance in Port Jefferson Station balance in their boxes. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Gwenn Capodieci, executive director at Backstage Studio of Dance in Port Jefferson Station, said in her 35 years at the studio, this year was unlike any other. 

“This was probably one of the hardest times of my life,” she said. “It was so very stressful trying to get the PPP loans, any other grants, working with our landlords, worrying about not being at the studio — I’m in the risky age group and I want to continue doing what I love.”

But within a week after the shutdown, she said, Backstage posted 65 classes to Zoom.

“Teaching on zoom was difficult,” she said. “In the beginning the kids were excited, but then it wore off. Part of dancing is they’re your family, you want to see them in class.”

Capodieci said her studio surveyed parents on holding a recital — a rite of passage for many ballerinas where they adorn sparkly tutu’s and dance for their families on the big stage after months of rehearsals. They decided to cancel it this year. 

But in mid-July they were allowed to reopen in person, changing shape, and adhering to the new state’s guidelines for teaching. Inside her studio taped to the floor are different grids, a socially distanced box for each dancer to twirl and tap in, while wearing their newest accessory — a mask.

Ballerinas at the barre stay six feet away from each other during warmups. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“We’ve perfected the cleaning routine,” she said. “We clean the floors in between every class, wipe down the barres and have taken every chair, cubby and bench that’s in the studio away.”

“I want to be safe,” she added. “I don’t want to get anyone sick, and I don’t want to close my business.”

Capodieci said the added costs of Zoom and the cleaning supplies took a toll, especially with enrollment down.

“Enrollment was 60-something percent of what we normally have,” she said. “I’m hoping that next year is a good year for us.”

Down the road, also in Port Jefferson Station, Port Jefferson Dance Academy was celebrating its 25th year in business when the virus struck.

“We did not do Zoom classes, instead I started a private Facebook page and my teachers would upload videos so students can do classes, warmups, barre work and across the floor whenever they chose to so they wouldn’t have to miss out on a Zoom meeting time or class,” Director Tara Lennstrom said. “Financially it was rough because I wasn’t making a profit off of that. The hope was when we opened up again, we could just resume where we left off.”

The outdoor stage at Port Jefferson Dance Academy. Photo from PJ Dance Academy

When they opened back up during Phase 4, they picked up on rehearsals for their recital. Normally the dancers perform at the Staller Center at Stony Brook University but were unable to due to COVID. She decided to hold an outdoor recital, instead. 

“I rented a giant dance floor with a DJ to play the music and people didn’t feel like they were behind the shopping center,” she said. “It was one of the most difficult recitals I’ve ever had to put together, but it was probably one of the best.”

Now in its 26th year, her classes look a little different. “We have 10 students per class, and I have a rather large studio, so that gives us ample space to dance,” she said. “People seem to be happy that there is something for their kids to do that’s fun and creative.”

Decked in their leotards and masks, Lennstrom said her students are not even phased by the new guidelines anymore.

“The resilience these kids have just shows you how they were able to adapt and how flexible they are,” she said.

Gabrielle Cambria, special productions manager at Chorus Line Dance Studio in Smithtown and Miller Place, said opening back up under the new guidelines was a no-brainer.

Ballerinas must stay within their boxes at Chorus Line Dance Studio in Smithtown. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“We all know that physical health isn’t the only health you need,” she said. “Everyone’s been really lucky and safe at our studio, and we’ve been dancing ever since.”

Chorus Line also implemented a large TV screen into their classrooms so students can Zoom in from home. 

“Our in-class group is cut in half, so they go back and forth each week,” Cambria added. 

Chance to Dance in Setauket did the same thing and opened up a Google Classroom account back in April.

“Anybody can take virtual class if they want to,” Jennifer Kranenberg, studio owner said. “If they’re not comfortable yet coming to class, they can still do something.”

Kranenberg said the virtual option was one positive that came out of COVID, because it allows students to makeup a class from home, or if they’re feeling slightly under the weather, they can still dance online. 

Young members of Chance to Dance studio in Setauket are also being recorded and livestreamed for other members not present. Photo by Julianne Mosher

At the start of the pandemic, Kranenberg said she knew how important the social aspect was for her students, so she added bonus weekly fun calendar of events including show and tells, Netflix movie nights, tea parties and family game nights online so her kids could still communicate virtually. She also featured her graduating seniors on social media, along with a surprise graduation car parade and a small, socially distanced prom. 

“I gave a huge piece of myself to make sure that the kids were having fun, staying engaged and getting to be with each other, having interactions with their dance friends,” she said. “It goes a long way.”

And, like the other studios, she faced similar challenges. She had to cut one of her three rooms to maintain a cap on students. “Enrollment is definitely low,” she said. “I wish it was higher than it was, but it’s not awful. I feel hopeful, but I’m scared. I feel like it’s a tight margin financially to, swing it and to get by.”

Miss Gwenn and her students at Backstage Studio of Dance in Port Jeff Station. Photo by Julianne Mosher

being in different locations with different students and classes, all four owners can agree that being back with their students was worth the hardship they faced the last nine months.

Capodieci said that her first day back in the studio she cried when she saw her students. 

“I love teaching dance,” she said. “I love my kids. I want to be with them, and if wearing the mask allows us to dance then we have to wear a mask.”

The Town of Smithtown Town Hall. File photo by Phil Corso

Smithtown town officials presented its 2021 tentative budget of $107.6 million to residents last week during a virtual public town hall meeting. A budget vote is scheduled for November.

“2020 has certainly been a whirlwind throwing challenges our way that are expected to continue throughout 2021,” Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said during the meeting. “It has made our jobs as municipal managers much more difficult in both overseeing the operating results for 2020 and projecting the budget for 2021.”

He said that early on in the pandemic, the town “weathered the storm” and created adequate reserves to keep things intact and continued to complete advantageous projects including the Lake Avenue Business District, among others. “The economic benefits of these projects will last long into the future, allowing for generations to come benefit greatly,” he said. 

Wehrheim added that this year the town decreased overtime and decided to cut discretionary spending by 15%. 

“If we should experience this again, we can promise you that town board, myself and our town employees will be ready after all the town endures.”

— Ed Wehrheim

The upcoming budget claims it will maintain municipal services while trimming payroll and increasing property taxes on the typical non-village home less than 1%. 

“In 2020, we looked to reducing expenditures by reinventing our own ways of doing business and created new opportunities to make up for the pandemic-related shortfall,” the supervisor said. “This enabled me to deliver a budget it stays within a mandated allowable New York state tax cap limitation this year of 1.5%, which is becoming increasingly more difficult for municipal managers.”

Some highlights included an overall decrease in salaries accounting for a little over $600,000. 

“Due to the retirement incentive we instituted during the pandemic, we did not utilize any fund balance to balance this budget,” he said. “It is a structurally balanced budget.”

Wehrheim said that overall taxes increased by less than 1% with the exception of residents within the St. James water district who experienced a slightly greater increase due to the water mains along Lake Avenue. The Lake Avenue Project cost $8 million, and includes a dry sewer line that officials home could connect to a sewage treatment plant at the Gyrodyne site near the town’s Brookhaven border. 

The 2021 tentative budget meeting broke down expenses by type. The bulk of expenses at 34% goes towards salaries, 30% to contractual agreements, 29% to employee benefits, 5% to debt service and 2% to equipment. 

It also states the Town’s General fund will see an increase of $22.57 for a home assessed at $5,500 or 3.74%. The same residence will see a reduction in their highway taxes of $4.51 or 3.61% for a net increase of $18.06 per residence valued at $5,500 or 2.48% increase. 

Residents not within village boundaries will see taxes increase by $10.48 for a home assessed at $5,500 or 0.81% higher. Wehrheim said no use of fund balance in any of those funds were used to balance the budget.

After officials broke down the plan, residents voiced their concerns. Members from the civic group We Are Smithtown brought up issues surrounding the Lake Avenue Project, the Master Plan and questions involving the town’s School Age Child Care Program. 

The group criticized that the budget seemed to show the town was profiting off of the program with the tentative budget showing revenue exceeded expenses by $548,264 in 2019. However, it shows that the program is expected to operate at a $226,846 loss this year, and that revenue is expected to exceed costs by $100,000 in 2021. 

James Bouklas, president of the group, argued that the Town of Smithtown brings in $1.413 million in revenue for the program each year, yet the budget shows the program’s cost is $828,000 – a profit of almost $600,000 yearly.

“If you look at the cost, you can see it’s pretty comprehensive,” he said. “This is not its own fund, it’s part of the general fund … In my opinion, it’s pretty comprehensive. There’s not a lot of shared services.” 

He added that the group called for an accounting for every dollar coming into the program. “All profits should be refunded to the families of the program,” Bouklas said. 

Patty Stoddard, a Nesconset resident and board member of the group, said this program is essential to working parents and should be accounted for. 

“This is a program that is a lifeline for working parents often work long hours to be able to afford to live in Smithtown and send their kids to excellence,” she said at the meeting. “This is not the first time we’ve addressed issues with this program. It came to our attention earlier this year that many childcare workers in the towns program were earning less than minimum wage. We pressured the town into doing the right thing and the town agreed to increase wages.”

However, Town Comptroller Donald Musgnug said the budget does not break down the program’s cost provided by other town departments including payroll, insurance, accounting and Parks and Recreation. 

“If you add them to the direct costs, would greatly diminish what you’re perceiving to be, quote, a profit,” he said. “We don’t measure profit and losses within a governmental entity. We’re not viewing it as a business per say. We’re not trying to make money off of that, and the fact of the matter is between 2020, because of the diminished revenues, we’re anticipating a loss of $227,000.”

Despite the problems 2020 caused for everyone locally and across the country, Wehrheim said he hopes the town will never have to witness circumstances like this again. 

“If we should experience this again, we can promise you that town board, myself and our town employees will be ready after all the town endures,” he said.

Rev. Demetrios Calogredes, a Greek Orthodox priest, above, blessed the lot during the ceremony as Supervisor Ed Wehrheim and Vincent Puleo, town clerk, look on. Photo by Julianne Mosher

A new 55-and-older rental apartment project has been in the works in Nesconset, and as of last week, ground has officially been broken with plans full speed ahead.

Town officials joined developers from Hauppauge-based The Northwind Group Oct. 15 to show their support for The Preserve at Smithtown. Alongside the recently cleared lot off of Smithtown Boulevard in Nesconset near Chestnut Street, several members from the We Are Smithtown civic group protested against the development. 

Protesters from the civic group We Are Smithtown, below, included James Bouklas and Phyllis Hart, president and vice president of the civic group. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“We saw data from the town about what people wanted in a master plan,” James Bouklas, president of the group said. “And it isn’t this project. The residents overwhelmingly want less development, not more, lower density, not higher, they want walkable communities and amenities, like a community center.”

“The town is interested in development for the sake of development,” he added. “Their mantra is, build, baby, build.”

The project is planned to cost about $47 million and should be completed within the next two years. But according to Town of Smithtown planning director, Peter Hans, there has been approval for the site since 1988, initially with another developer. That project called for 192 units, and now, under The Northwind Group development, there will be 180 units built on 20 vacant acres.

“It won’t be heavily visible from Smithtown Boulevard,” he said. “A lot of the wood will be preserved.”

And at last Thursday’s groundbreaking, the elected officials all agreed this new development, despite what the naysayers might think, will have a positive impact.

“Everything we’re doing here is to help our economy,” town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said at the groundbreaking. “Because of the high taxes, people are leaving. We want to keep our community thriving.”

Vincent Puleo, the town clerk and president of the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce, said residents of the project will bring $11 million in disposable income to the area. “Smithtown Boulevard will become downtown driven,” he said. “The positives outweigh the negatives 100%.”

“Smithtown Boulevard will become downtown driven. The positives outweigh the negatives 100%.”

—Vincent Puleo

Jim Tsunis, managing member of Northwind, said he and his team are looking forward to bringing the project to provide new housing for Smithtown seniors.

“They will move out of their houses, get an apartment here and spend their money downtown,” he said. 

“Turning that property into a senior-living development opens the door for Nesconset, which is a game changer,” town spokesperson Nicole Garguilo said. “Nesconset never had that centralized business district, but now Smithtown Boulevard will have that.”

But the peaceful protesters stood their ground.

“We are not against housing for seniors,” Bouklas said. “We are against density in our already dense neighborhoods, traffic on our congested roads and, most importantly, tax breaks for developers while the rest of us pay full price.”

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By Steven Zaitz

Richard “Bull” Smith, who founded Smithtown over 350 years ago, never played quarterback. Nor could he run the pick and roll in basketball, turn a 6-4-3 double play in baseball or swim the 100-meter breaststroke.

However, his statue was smack in the middle of about 100 student-athletes, coaches and parents Friday, Sept. 18, as they gathered to protest the Section XI decision to suspend all high school sports due to the coronavirus until at least January 2021. They met right on the front lawn of Section XI headquarters on Main Street and Route 111 in Smithtown.

Groups representing Kings Park, East Islip, Northport, Commack, Ward Melville and Connetquot joined Smithtown residents, who began their protest at the school district’s administration earlier on New York Avenue, and held up signs imploring the decision makers to rethink this delay. Many of these devoted and impassioned protesters were at the same location, doing the same thing Tuesday, Sept. 15.

One of these protesters was Ray Zuppa, an attorney from Smithtown, who feels that high school athletic facilities are far less dangerous than other places that kids might go. He is also a strong believer that not having the chance to play sports is devastating to the youngsters’ development.

“I believe Section XI has let the kids down,” Zuppa said later during a phone interview. “I realize it is a serious virus, but the science supports that it’s difficult to catch outside and when wearing a mask.”

Zuppa’s son, Isaiah Zuppa, is the starting quarterback of the Smithtown West Bulls and was one of the highest-rated passers in Suffolk County in 2019. He was also in attendance at the protest.

“Isaiah is a shell of himself,” the father said. “It’s not just about the games, but all these kids are missing the camaraderie, the discipline, team dinners and the bonding — and you know what, the parents are missing it too. Sports is essential to a lot of families.”

Zuppa coached his son for many years in the Suffolk County Police Athletic League, and when the father was asked if he took solace in the plans to have football season in March, he was skeptical. 

“I think this March thing is just a way to kick the can down the road,” he said.  “I don’t think it’s really going to happen, and this is just a way for them to bide their time.”

The masked protesters were rewarded by the encouragement of honking car horns, and they created a party-like atmosphere as they tossed footballs, sang team fight songs and ran through tumbling routines at the foot of Smith’s statue. However, Tom Combs, executive director of Section XI, and the main target of the protesters’ ire, did not address the crowd or make an appearance from his nearby office.

“While this was a difficult decision, we feel it was the best move for the health and safety of everyone involved,” Combs said in a Sept. 11 statement on the Section XI website. “We still have a lot of hard work ahead in planning and executing on the three seasons across six months in 2021, but we look forward to the challenge and collaboration with our member schools and providing an impactful experience for our student-athletes and coaches.”

Despite Combs’ nonappearance, Zuppa still thinks these public showings are beneficial.

“They know we’re out here,” he said. “They know how we feel.”