There may be areas of tension between local lawmakers and business owners, and even between shopkeepers and restaurateurs, as far as how to best move forward to reopen the local economy, with the summer season quickly approaching and the number of coronavirus cases waning here.
But one thing everyone can agree on is that a “bottom-up” approach, with businesses having a key voice, rather than “top-down” dictates from the federal and state government officials should be used to formulate the road map to recovery.
A panel of experts shared their vision for the shape of downtown business districts post-crisis at the Express News Group’s virtual Express Sessions forum “Reenvisioning Main Street in the Time of Coronavirus,” on Thursday, May 21. All expressed a measure of frustration that, at times, they felt like their voices weren’t being heard.
They insisted that local residents and business owners could best understand and anticipate the unique characteristics of the region and the distinctive trials that local businesses will face as the economy begins to loosen up in the coming weeks. One size does not fit all when it comes to geographic areas, they said — or to types of businesses.
Thursday’s panel included Sag Harbor retailer David Brogna, restaurateur David Hersh, restaurateur Mark Smith, East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc, Sag Harbor Village Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren, and infectious disease prevention specialists Patty Mupo and Holly Fischer from Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead.
The forum was moderated by Express News Group Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw. Express News Group Co-Publisher Gavin Menu kicked off the event. Nearly 100 community members attended the event via the Zoom video conference platform.
The panel addressed a number of issues surrounding plans to reopen the retail and food service industries, local government’s role in helping to maintain social distancing and other safety requirements, debated plans to restrict or eliminate parking in business districts, outdoor dining as an option for restaurants, how employees and consumers can best practice social distancing and safe hygiene, a host of other issues.
Can Government Pivot?
Many panelists acknowledged that the pandemic might offer a “silver lining” of sorts, allowing both businesses and municipalities the opportunity to implement new ideas — or old proposals that were, in the past, scuttled or abandoned for various reasons — on a trial basis, to see what might work on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. Shaw noted that “government tends to move very slowly” and asked the lawmakers on the panel whether ideas — some of which have actually been talked about for years — to remake Main Street business districts, in light of the pandemic, can now be accomplished, or at least tested.
“We really have a situation that, for most businesses, has meant, you need to take long-term concerns and address them immediately,” he said. “Can government turn on a dime like that and get something substantial done in time for this summer? Is that even feasible?”
“I think it is,” Mr. Van Scoyoc responded. “I think that’s what the emergency declaration orders that we’re allowed to administer allow us to do. … We can suspend parking regulations. We can suspend certain activities. We want to flatten the curve as quickly and as effectively as possible, but we don’t want to flatten our economy to the point where we can’t recover from it.”
The supervisor noted that town officials had been discussing suspending traffic on certain hamlet main streets for over four years as part of the hamlet studies for Montauk and other areas. He noted that the town expects to have some different traffic patterns in place in the coming weeks, specifically for downtown Montauk.
“We’ve talked about creating more walkable downtowns,” he said. “The silver lining here is this is an opportunity to do this on a trial basis, to reach out directly to business members to work out ways to get back to work while keeping people safe.”
Ms. Mulcahy — who, on Friday, the day after the forum, signed an executive order limiting parking on Main Street to 30 minutes over the Memorial Day weekend — said she was willing to try different things, judging changes week by week, if necessary.
“I’d like to have something in place tomorrow, to try for the weekend,” she said, “and then we’ll have something in place next weekend to try again, because … with a little bit of luck, maybe by next weekend we will be starting in on phase one.”
She clarified that there were no plans to permanently close Main Street. “It’s not going to happen,” she said. “But we are going to try a couple of different ideas. Everything is going to be a little trial-and-error.”
The mayor acknowledged that some businesses in the village had loudly expressed opposition to plans to alter traffic and parking on Main Street. She estimated that opinions were about 60-40 in favor of limiting traffic on portions of Main Street, but that the “40 are a little bit louder.”
Mr. Brogna disagreed with the mayor’s assessment, noting that a recent survey indicated that as many as 78 percent of business owners were opposed to the proposal to close down Main Street to traffic.
“The whole concern is this whole thing was a top-down decision to close us” he said, referring to initial orders from the state in March to shutter nonessential businesses. “We were told, ‘Stop your livelihoods,’ and we did. We’ve had no incomes for nine weeks.
“We need it to be a bottom-up start,” he continued. “It really should start with the businesses and what our needs are. That’s a key to this whole thing, and that’s where the angst is amongst the businesses. Reality, we’re at a tipping point.”
Village Board member Bob Plumb, who is leading a task force for the village on reopening businesses, attended Thursday’s forum and addressed Mr. Brogna, noting that the survey he referred to only asked whether business owners favored eliminating parking on Main Street, without offering any other options — which, he said, was never the village’s intentions.
“The real number, I think, is closer to 50-50,” he said. “Eliminating traffic has always been the nuclear option. That is considered pretty radical. That wasn’t the primary idea, and that wasn’t the point of the survey that we sent.”
When asked by Mr. Shaw whether he would be willing to try closing Main Street for a time to see if it could be successful, Mr. Brogna said that experimenting with closing traffic would be better served during positive economic times, not during a crisis. He also noted that it might benefit restaurants, but not retail stores and shops like his.
“We need a quick in and a quick out,” he said. “That’s going to make people feel safe. We don’t need people lingering. People don’t want to linger in the store. We need to get those people turned around quickly.”
Mr. Van Scoyoc noted that business owners in Montauk favored the idea of reconfiguring traffic patterns in the hamlet in order to help spread people out.
Mr. Warren, who in addition to being mayor of Southampton Village owns retail shops in both Southampton and East Hampton villages, noted that the two villages are “extremely different” and shouldn’t be painted with the same brush.
“One size does not fit all,” he said, emphasizing a point Mr. Van Scoyoc made earlier. “Each village is uniquely different and will have different solutions.”
Mr. Warren agreed that “seasonal business owners” should be included in coming up with reopening plans.
“Our local business owners in any village are extremely resourceful,” he said. “They have what I call a survival instinct, given the seasonality of the businesses. So it’s really great to put everyone together and to have them come up with some type of solution.”
That being said, he noted that the earlier phases of the reopening would be a good time to try out different approaches.
“When many businesses are straight closed, there’s a lot less to lose right now,” he said. “My own business, we can’t get open. So if Main Street was closed, personally, what we would lose or gain wouldn’t change, because, ultimately, we have zero business today.”
Mr. Warren said he was pushing the state to change some of the regulations — for instance, allowing one person at a time to shop in a retail establishment, or using appointment apps to schedule a time to shop.
“If there is a time to experiment and to try new things, now is the time,” he said. “A bottom-up approach is really the way to go.”
Mr. Van Scoyoc noted that he was planning to send a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, seeking more local control over the reopening process.
Will Outdoor Dining Cut The Mustard?
Also in favor of a bottom-up approach were the restaurant owners on the panel, who noted that each restaurant may be as unique as its location. As talk turns to outdoor seating to make up for reduced capacity indoor dining, they emphasized that what might work for one may not work for another.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation,” said Mr. Smith, the owner of five restaurants. “One of my restaurants sits back in a courtyard. And I actually have the capacity to put more tables outside, which we would do as we lose that capacity on the inside.
“Obviously, when we’re allowed to open, there’s going to be a state mandate in terms of how much space they’re going to require. … It’ll probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent capacity and 6 feet between tables.
“So, again, my situation at two of my restaurants that are on private property, I might have the ability to put more people outside, and somebody in downtown Sag Harbor … with 6-foot spacing between tables, it might mean only a table or two.”
Many restaurants, he noted, won’t have the space to go outside at all.
But while he said it was important to open up his businesses, he emphasized that it’s also important to keep everyone safe.
Mr. Smith also said he was excited to see elected officials willing to make changes to accommodate the needs of business owners, allowing them to recover, and to experiment with new ideas.
“I think that kind of attitude is important in our businesses, as well as our towns, and I’m just really pleased to see that,” he said.
Mr. Hersh, who owns Cowfish and Rumba in Hampton Bays and is opening a new restaurant in Westhampton Beach, suggested that each restaurant and business be afforded the opportunity to present a plan to the town, rather than trying to formulate a single plan for all restaurants to adhere to.
“I think it’s better for each individual restaurant to tell the town how you’re going to keep people safe and reopen,” he said. “Hey, here’s where I’d like my tables to be. Here’s where I’d like to have my outdoor seating. And let the towns inspect that and approve that on a very quick basis.”
Mr. Van Scoyoc noted that the either the state or local government would be reviewing any business reopening plan. He also noted that currently East Hampton allows restaurants to utilize 30 percent of their occupancy levels for outdoor dining, but officials may “further liberalize” that, dependent on space.
Mr. Hersh also said he would favor the villages closing off some main streets, even if just one night a week, like is being planned in Patchogue, to allow restaurants to set up some table dining in the roadway, while leaving sidewalks open for window shopping.
He also noted the ability to sell alcohol with takeout orders has been extremely beneficial, and he would like to see that continue even after the crisis is over.
“If it wasn’t for that one action step, I probably would have lost another restaurant,” he said, noting that he closed a restaurant in Miami that wasn’t able to recover when the economy opened back up there.
But Is It Safe?
Ms. Mupo said it was reassuring to finally see people outdoors and enjoying the fresh air, and said it was certainly time to see a reopened economy with an emphasis on safe main streets.
“There are opportunities to be outside and still maintain safe social distancing, and keep each other safe without spreading disease,” she said. “You can create a lot of opportunity with placement of tables, planters in between customers, offering different ways to book reservations to avoid crowding or standing in line.”
It’s important, she said, to help consumers feel comfortable, and letting them know what is being done to keep them safe, was important. She stressed good hand hygiene and a clean environment as being the most important things to combat the spread of the disease.
“Some of it is basic,” she said, “I’m really about the basics. What you really want to do is prevent, and put a lot of steps in place to prevent the disease.”
When asked by Mr. Shaw if they were comfortable that the South Fork could safely begin to open the economy, both Ms. Mupo and Ms. Fischer said it was — as long as precautions were taken, and as long as state and county protocols are adhered to.
“As a consumer, am I going to be safe to begin to emerge from my hole and begin to shop again?” Mr. Shaw asked Ms. Mupo.
“Education is powerful,” she responded. “Educating our communities, continuing to educate our staff and our businesses and following some of the very basics will allow us to do this safely. I’m speaking from the perspective of a hospital having had a pandemic, and those same safety measures were put in place and were our basic norm every day in this facility.
“In using all of that consistently and thoroughly throughout the building, we were able to have no spread or transmission of disease in the building — and we were seeing COVID patients on every unit in every bed in our facility every day. We did not have any staff sick and we did not see any patients who had transmission of COVID in the building.
“So being in a community,” she continued, “in a setting where we have less of that acute disease, I think it’s definitely possible to put these measures in place and be successful.”