EXPRESS SESSIONS: Business Owners, Lawmakers Hopeful About Reconomy Reopening In Time For Summer Season

Steve Bellone

South Fork business owners and area lawmakers said during a virtual Express Sessions forum last Thursday, June 25, that they were hopeful that, as Long Island continues moving forward in the state’s reopening plan after the coronavirus epidemic, lost time — and revenue — could be made up for this summer, as long as the virus continues its decline.

“All of our businesses survive based on the revenues that they make between April and October, and, you know, we’ve already missed a big chunk of that,” said Paul Monte, president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. “Now, hopefully, we’ll have a good summer in July and August, and pray God we’ll have a nice fall coming up, and we’ll be able to pick up some of that slack in the future. But there is a concern. There’s a fear of the unknown.”

The Express Sessions event, “Open for Business: Returning to a New Normal,” brought together professionals like Mr. Monte; Jesse Matsuoka, a partner in Sen Sag Harbor, KPasa Sag Harbor, and Manna at the Lobster Inn; Shannon Willey, the owner of Sea Green Designs in Southampton; and Tara Curry, co-owner of The Hampton Maid in Hampton Bays.

Also on the panel were Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, East Hampton Town Councilman David Lys, and Dr. Fredric Weinbaum, the chief medical officer and chief operating officer at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.

The Zoom-based forum was hosted by Express News Group Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw.

Efforts to quell the virus in Suffolk County over the past several months have had a favorable outcome, Mr. Bellone reported, noting that efforts to flatten to curve had so far lasted a full season — from March 22, the first day of spring, to Father’s Day, the first day of summer.

“So I would actually say … that we could call it a resounding success,” Mr. Bellone said. “I was able to report for the first time since March 22 that we were below 100 people in our hospitals, in Suffolk County with COVID-19. … We are now in phase three, the numbers are continuing to be flat. Our infection rate over the last number of weeks has remained at or below 1 percent. We are reopening safely, and I believe that we will be able to continue doing that moving forward in the summer. My real concern is going to be the fall.”

In phase three of the state’s reopening plan, restaurants have begun to allow for indoor seating at a reduced capacity, and more Main Street shops were allowed to open, further supplementing outdoor dining policies put into place during the previous phase.

But the restaurant operators on the panel said they envisioned a summer highlighting the new outdoor dining rules, especially given the resort nature of the community.

Joseph P. Shaw

“There’s some people that feel safe enough to go to the indoor [dining], which is wonderful,” Mr. Matsuoka said, “and for those that don’t feel that they want to go indoors, there’s a lot of people that are offering outdoor seating, which is to me a safe way and a good way for us to operate our businesses.”

The lawmakers agreed that, at least for the next year, municipalities would be willing to work with restaurants — many of which spent thousands of dollars to set themselves up for outdoor dining — to keep allowing outdoor dining where it might not have been favored prior.

“I think outdoor dining is going to be here to stay in some type of capacity,” Mr. Lys said. “I think we will probably see more outdoor and municipal gathering events.”

Mr. Schneiderman said he would like to promote more outdoor dining in Southampton Town as well.

“I’ve always been a fan of outdoor dining,” he said. “I love to sit outside and eat, and I never really understood, in a tourist area like the Hamptons, why there’s so little outdoor dining. It seems to make sense. …

“The towns in general, through the years, at least in my observation, have not been particularly pro-outdoor dining. In fact, they’ve been very difficult. And I never really understood that, so I’m hoping that this is a sort of a sea change that we do see a movement toward outdoor dining. It adds so much vitality, so much vibrancy to a downtown area, and we have a beautiful climate here — this just doesn’t make sense why people shouldn’t be sitting out if they have that opportunity.”

Mr. Bellone noted that the county has agreed, in the short term at least, to help bypass Suffolk County Health Department rules and regulations in order to allow restaurants to integrate outdoor dining as the economy reopens.

“In the middle of this crisis, we had these calls over the phone,” he said. “We said, ‘Look, we’re getting outdoor dining going, restaurants need to be able to survive this. They need to get going.’ So we’re going to say in the Health Department, any local municipality that approves outdoor dining or the expansion about outdoor dining, we’re just going to give automatic approval from the Health Department. And I think the municipalities did a great job of expediting this, making it move quickly.

“The world’s not ending when this happens. We really have to think about how we move these things forward more quickly in the future.”

All of the panelists were cautiously optimistic that the South Fork could see a robust summer season. Ms. Curry noted that while her hotel business was slow during the worst of the crisis, business was picking up, with regular clients eager to have their summer vacations on the East End.

“Just recently, the last couple of weeks in June, I’d say, it started to pick up,” she said. “July Fourth, we’re actually booked. We’re sold out already. So that’s great news — and July and August are looking to be similar to last year.”

Ms. Willey also noted that her customers were excited to see a, somewhat, return to normal. “I think that things won’t go back to exactly the way they were, but in terms of the client comfort level, I’m already seeing that when we were able to open the retail portion of our business, again, a couple of weeks ago, from the very first day, all the way through today, people are coming into the store, talking about how happy they are to be in the shop again,” she said.

Ms. Curry did note, however, that some clients seemed to be waiting until the last minute to book rooms to gauge what the economy here might look like.

“They’re waiting. They’re calling, and they want to know what’s going on, what’s open. Their main concern is being able to go to the beach, and when they do learn that it’s restricted right now, they are hesitant to make the reservation. They want to make sure that they can come out here and do that.

“They’re definitely eager to come out and start their normal vacation that they come every year, and when they learn that it’s not going to be the same, like it has been, they get a little bit upset.”

A successful season without any spikes in the virus numbers is going to depend upon the cooperation of the public and summer visitors, the panelists noted, to avoid the South Fork being home to hotspots like those recently reported in New York City and Florida.

Jay Schneiderman

For the most part, consumers have been cooperative about social distancing and wearing masks, the business owners reported, but there is a certain percentage of people who refuse to cooperate, at least initially, they said.

“I really feel for the code enforcement that’s walking around, because there are a handful of people that are just very defiant,” Mr. Matsuoka said. “And they’re very vocal to say so right to the code enforcer’s face, and the mayor and the code enforcer have asked us as business owners to hold our ground and decline service to anyone that does not have a mask. And there is pushback for the handful. It’s not everyone, it’s not a lot of people, but there is a handful of people that will come up to the window or come up to come and pick up their food and they complain.”

Mr. Shaw asked how often that was happening, and Mr. Matsuaoka answered about 10 times per day, or about 10 percent of his customers. He noted that many of the people have masks with them, they are just refusing to put them on. “But most of them, it’s in their back pocket and they just pull it out,” he said.

Ms. Willey described similar experiences.

“Yes. I’ve been seeing the same thing,” she said. “I’d say, every day, a couple of people will come in. We have to ask them to put their masks on, or do they have a mask, and then they’ll pull it out of their pocket, but they’re slow to put it on. It’s a couple of times a day, I’d say, which starts to get a little frustrating. … That that’s one more step that we now have to do to make sure that everybody’s complying to that.”

That non-compliance only goes to reinforce the fear that many of the panelists harbor about a resurgence of the virus numbers, either this summer or in a second wave this fall. Dr. Weinbaum, acknowledging that he was going to become the “wet blanket guy” described the current situation as the area being “in the eye of a hurricane.”

“We’re currently in a very peaceful state,” he said. “We had an enormous surge of activity during the spring. That enormous surge peaked just before the point of being somewhat overwhelmed, we were able to manage through it together. Our political leadership, our business community, our health care workers — we’re all learning our way into this future together.

“If you have to know, my biggest fear is that, just like I tend to behave when I’m in the eye of the hurricane, I go outside, I look up at the sky, I see it’s blue and there’s hardly a cloud in the sky, and I think, ‘My God, it’s over, I’m done and I can now go about my life safely,’” he said.

“Well, the unfortunate aspect about being in the eye is you know the other end is coming. … As we exist in the eye, it’s very tempting to say, hey, everything’s okay. We are going to be able to return to normal and behave in the way we’re used to behaving. … I do want to say to you and to everyone who’s listening that we do have to maintain our vigilance.”

While it’s tempting to think that because the curve was flattened, that life will go back to normal, but Mr. Bellone echoed Dr. Weinbaum’s warning to remain vigilant in the coming weeks and months.

“I don’t think there’s an end to this until we have a vaccine or we have some drug treatment that’s going to enable us to manage this moving forward,” he said. “My big concern is we maintain these numbers at a lower level throughout the summer because people are outside generally, they’re following the guidance, they’re distancing, they’re wearing the face coverings.

“But we get to the fall, kids are back in school, we start getting back indoors again, and maybe we’re a little bit lax now because we’ve had several months of good numbers — and that’s when a second wave hits.”

That being said, the officials noted that if a second wave were to occur, the community is much better armed to deal with it than it was this spring, because of the lessons learned.

“The Town of Southhampton has been in a three-month state of emergency,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “There’s no playbook for this. There wasn’t some planning documents sitting on a shelf that I could turn to: This is what you do in a global pandemic. So everything had to be done differently. Everything had to be reinvented. Government had to be repurposed. There’s probably so many lessons learned.

“I guess I’ve learned that we’re a community, we’re a region, both the individual towns of the Hamptons as well as all of Suffolk County,” he added. “I’ve never had this kind of communication with other local leaders, the daily communication. That’s been a really positive thing. I think we have found that we have a lot more in common that we have dividing us.”