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Oceanside musician's Sunday concerts on Facebook Live support businesses, medical professionals and first responders

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On Sunday evenings, local residents can enjoy a concert without leaving home. Jonathan Rizzo, of Oceanside, presents a weekly performance at 9 p.m. on Facebook Live and Instagram, encouraging those watching to send in their requests, and their donations.

While he strums his guitar and sings, Rizzo is also raising money, with which he purchases gift cards from local businesses to donate to first responders and front-line workers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I call it ‘Sunday Night Live,’” Rizzo said. “I did it really to help my community, and to help my people.”

Before bars and restaurants across the state closed or moved to takeout-only models at the mandate of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Rizzo played as many as a half-dozen live gigs a week in Oceanside, Island Park and Long Beach. Over many years he has built something of a following, and he even appeared on NBC’s “The Voice” last September. Rizzo was one of 40,000 people who entered the competition, and was one of 85 who was invited to Los Angeles and given a televised audition, though he did not advance in the competition.

Because local bars have been good to him over the years — and many business owners are friends he grew up with — Rizzo came up with the idea of hour-long concerts, during which those tuning in would be encouraged to donate, but he said it was important that listeners didn’t feel obligated to do so if they just wanted to enjoy the show. In first concert on March 29, he ended up playing for more than two hours and raising $3,000. When he woke up the following morning, the total had jumped to $5,000.

Rizzo owns a small business, J-Riz Entertainment and Productions, in Oceanside, and all of his events have been postponed until July, so, he said, he understands how businesses are struggling, and wanted to help.

“It’s good for the community,” he said. “People are having fun, and I love to play. I also love to help out my people.”

After the success of the first show, Rizzo decided to make it a weekly event. In addition to supporting local businesses and hospital workers, he said, his performances give people something to do, with so many relatively isolated, heeding health officials’ warnings by staying inside.

Last week, Rizzo donated $500 cash to each of six local businesses, which in turn gave him $500 worth of gift cards to distribute to first responders and medical professionals. He that said anything left over, and anything he raised from future concerts, would be donated to more businesses to provide meals to front-line workers.

One of the businesses was J. Paul’s Terrace Cafe, on Merrick Road in Oceanside. Its owner, Joe Bonin, said that he was grateful for Rizzo’s efforts, and noted that he has known him for many years. He added that Rizzo played a monthly set at the restaurant before the pandemic hit. Bonin said this has been a tough time for his business, because he had to cut its hours to 3 to 8 p.m. daily while offering takeout service only, and had to slash his bar and wait staff while keeping his kitchen employees on limited hours. At times like these, he said, it means a lot for the community — and Rizzo — to care.

“It helps everyone,” Bonin said of his friend’s efforts. “It helps small businesses like mine stay in business through this tough time. It helps him get his music out there and get his name out there, and, obviously, helps all the medics, nurses and doctors, and all the hospital staff that is really on the front line, working through this crisis.”

One of those front-line workers is Kim Babich, a nurse at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital, who was raised in Oceanside and lives in Long Beach with her husband, Marc. Kim said there were no words to describe how slammed the hospital has been in recent weeks as the number of coronavirus cases continued to climb.

“It’s been mentally and emotionally draining, and it’s just a very difficult time that we’re going through right now,” she said. “[March 29] was my first day off in almost two weeks, and to just sit back and relax for three hours and listen to [Jonathan] play, and for him to choose me as someone he was going to donate to, I was just so grateful and speechless.”

Kim and the other nurses in her unit were set to receive a gift card from one of the local businesses to purchase meals for themselves while they’re at the hospital. Similarly, Marc, an officer in the specialized Emergency Service Unit in the Nassau County Police Department and a volunteer for the Long Beach Fire Department, will also receive a gift card for him and his peers to use.

“He’s just an amazing dude and he’s always had a following,” Marc said of Rizzo, whom he has known since second grade. “Whenever he does something, it’s always big. I knew he was going to do more than he probably even thought he was going to do.”

Rizzo said his concerts have a loose atmosphere. Sometimes his father, Paul Rizzo, even jumps in on guitar — from an acceptable distance, Jonathan added. His father inspired him to become a musician, he said, and they often perform together locally.

The younger Rizzo said he was excited about playing every Sunday night, and supporting those who need it most right now. “I can’t believe how much money I’m making by just turning my computer on,” he said with a laugh. “If these businesses don’t stay alive, everybody in my music family is in trouble. So this is a cool way to make sure my music family has business when this over, that these businesses stay alive, and most importantly, that these families are fine.”

To donate, visit the Oceanside Strong fundraiser page on Facebook, or send a contribution to @JonnyRiz on the Venmo mobile payment service.