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Long Island businesses left in limbo by pandemic

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Long Island business owners, particularly its restaurateurs, are feeling anxious and confused once again after a four-month period of relative calm following last spring’s deadly local outbreak of the coronavirus, which forced shops and eateries to shutter before slowly opening back up over the summer and into the fall.

The big question now is, will businesses face tighter restrictions again because of a second infection wave that has surged across the country, including in New York, in recent weeks?

“Is there going to be a shutdown? Is there not going to be a shutdown?” asked Harry Malhotra, director of the South Asian Chamber of Commerce, during an online hour-long panel discussion, “Main Street Business Survival,” on Dec. 3 at the Long Island Smart Growth Summit, hosted by the nonprofit Vision Long Island.

Such questions weigh heavily on small-business owners these days, Malhotra said. The answers will depend, in part, on the degree to which the Covid-19 virus spreads, and whether it can be controlled, according to government officials.

Starting in mid-November, Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed a 10 p.m. closing time for bars, restaurants, gyms and any establishments that serve alcohol, including bowling alleys. The measure, said Frank Camarano, first vice president of the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce, has been “catastrophic for restaurants.”

Restaurants can serve curbside pickup and delivery orders after 10 p.m., but not liquor to go.

Cuomo’s order came at a time when Covid-19 cases began to tick back up. In early October, the percentage of tests for the virus that came back positive hovered around 1 percent, according to New York state’s coronavirus dashboard. By mid-November, it was above 3 percent. As of Dec. 1, it was close to 6 percent, with a seven-day rolling average of 4.9 percent.

By comparison, in April, the percentage of positive tests was above 20 percent at times, before declining.

For business owners, “It’s very difficult … It’s like a tsunami coming down, and they don’t know where to go,” said Luis Vasquez, president and CEO of the Long Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, adding, “It’s very confusing. There is no roadmap.” His organization’s objective, he said, is to be an informational resource for its members.

Malhotra noted the crippling effect of Cuomo’s November order, restricting residential gatherings to 10 or fewer people, on a number of restaurants and catering halls. The order means no or few catered parties in homes, a critical source of income for many restaurateurs. “All parties canceled again,” he said. “Everything is gone again.”

Elizabeth Wellington, deputy director of the Long Island African American Chamber of Commerce, said the public “must support downtown businesses.”

Neil Seiden, president of the financial advisory firm Asset Enhancement Solutions, in Uniondale, noted that the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which provided Small Business Administration loans that would be forgiven if a company kept all of its employees on, ended Aug. 8. “Hopefully,” Seiden said, “Congress can agree” on another round of economic stimulus — which, at press time, seemed increasingly likely. So, he said, business owners must be prepared to apply for aid if and when the next stimulus package is approved.

In recent days, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were in talks over a $908 billion stimulus plan. Whether it would be put up for a vote and would be signed by President Trump remained uncertain, however.

Camarano said he believes government restrictions are putting businesses “in a position that they need help.” Closing restaurants at 10 p.m., he said, is “not solving the problem.

“Let them do their work,” he said of area businesses. “Let them earn their money.”

Malhotra said that business owners must work hard to promote themselves on social media, and, he added, “Local newspapers, they’re helping us a lot.” He also suggested that patrons might write online reviews of their favorite restaurants to help build buzz around them.

Vasquez reminded the 75 discussion attendees to shop locally, as did Wellington. Of small-business owners, Vasquez said, “I think we should be there for them.”

He also said that business owners should “stay connected” with their local chambers of commerce. Camarano added that one need not be a chamber member to reach out — chambers are there to help all local businesses, regardless of whether they are dues-paying members.

In the end, Vasquez concluded, “Don’t give up hope.”

Comments about this story? Email sbrinton@liherald.com.