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.
“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.
“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.