Margarita’s Cafe, on South Main Street, has long been a popular spot to dine in Freeport, especially during the summer. In the past, the cafe closed in the fall as business began to slow on the South Shore, but that was not an option this year.
Sergio Torres, a manager at the cafe, said this was the first time it was open in the fall, as restaurants and businesses around the village grappled with the loss of revenue and increased costs caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
While restaurants continue to operate at only 50 percent capacity, Torres noted that the demand for dining out was still high, despite the chilly weather.
“People still want to go out and eat,” he said, “now more than ever.”
Outdoor dining began during Phase Two of the state’s reopening protocols, and the Village of Freeport partnered with Nassau County in County Executive Laura Curran’s Open Streets program, which allowed local municipalities to approve extended outdoor dining sections for restaurants.
The village and county also helped provide thousands of units of personal protective equipment to local businesses, a program that Frank Montana, of Montana Brothers Pizzeria and Catering, also on South Main Street, took advantage of.
When the pandemic began, Montana stocked up on sanitizing equipment to put customers at ease, a move that helped in the long run as his restaurant transitioned smoothly into reopening. Yet, despite all the prep work, Montana’s was still affected not only by the limit on dining capacity, but also by the added cost of running a business amid a pandemic.
PPE is one of the most common costs for restaurants, but Montana also purchased five large Plexiglas dividers to separate tables and protect customers. Each divider cost about $250.
Both Montana’s and Margarita’s also purchased heaters for their outdoor dining sections. Montana’s can accommodate about 35 people on its outdoor patio, and Margarita’s can seat a little less than 100 people.
Torres noted that accommodating outdoor diners comes at a high cost, as one heater is nearly $600.
“We’re all still hurting,” Montana said, “and we’re all trying to keep our customers coming back and supporting us.”
Montana added that the restaurant put together a new reward program since the pandemic began, for which members receive coupons for 20 percent off to attract customers and help sustain the business.
At the Freeport Chamber of Commerce’s latest Luncheon on Tuesday, at Montana’s, Curran addressed local business leaders on the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases in Nassau.
Curran said that while the county had fared well since the summer, seeing only about a 1 percent positive test rate, that number had more than doubled to 2.8 percent as of Monday. At press time, there were 95 people hospitalized across the county, with six on ventilators.
The county attributes the increase to large gatherings, with residents going out of state to attend crowded events and contracting the coronavirus.
“It would be heartbreaking to see our businesses and schools close down again and be penalized because of these large events,” Curran said. “We know that we can’t afford to go back. Our communities aren’t built to last another shutdown.”
While the county must adhere to the state’s guidelines and regulations, Curran said she hoped restaurants and businesses could open to full capacity once the pandemic was under control.
County officials also hope to bolster the local business community through the annual Shop Small Scavenger Hunt, for which residents are awarded prizes for shopping at a variety of different stores in their community. The county is now organizing the scavenger hunt, which is normally held on Small Business Saturday, Nov. 28 this year.
“We want people to shop locally, and we trust our businesses to keep their customers and employees safe during this pandemic,” Curran said. “We’ve gotten this far, so let’s keep going.”