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Bellmore-Merrick business owners react to reopening as Phase One begins

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As projected, Long Island began the Phase One reopening of its battered economy on Wednesday, paving the way for construction and wholesale trade companies to restart operations, along with retailers for curbside pickup only.

It came as a sigh of relief to business owners in Bellmore and Merrick who have been forced to adjust to state-mandated protocols since mid-March. While some companies got the green light to go back to work, others are still in limbo until the following phases can commence. 

"It is a little confusing, because there are certain businesses that don't fall under those industries" described in the phases, said Femy Aziz, president of the Merrick Chamber of Commerce. "We're having a general meeting via Zoom with Dennis Grossman [president of the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce], who will give us better guidance into these reopening phases." 

Aziz owns Serengeti Design Studios in Merrick, and has clients come in by appointment only to comply with social distancing rules. She has also ordered sneeze guards for the front counter, and plans to install touchless hand sanitizer machines throughout the store. When customers visit, they're asked to wear masks. 

While the reopening process is a plus for the local economy, Aziz said business owners must do their part to advertise the measures they're taking to maintain safe and healthy work environments for both themselves and their customers, otherwise, "People are not going to feel comfortable," she said. 

"Even if you're a part of the phases, you shouldn't reopen until you're ready," Aziz added. "If we want to continue doing what we love, we’re gonna have to make adjustments, and consumers have to be socially responsible, too. It's a two-way street."

BiCounty Electric in North Bellmore was shuttered for the entire month of April due to the coronavirus pandemic. The small business employs electricians who work on small service calls, home renovations and improvements and large-scale construction jobs. 

BiCounty's comptroller, Laurie Rezny, said the reopening is "a good thing." The business had to apply for a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, but as the region reopens, Rezny is hopeful that customers will start to come back.

"We weren’t the ones to take a loan before," she said. "It’s been kind of slow, but we’re hopeful that a lot of people will continue with renovations now."

Robert Ginsberg, president of On The Safe Side, Inc., a security systems provider in Merrick, said his company has been operating at "half-steam" since the start of the shutdown. He said he believes that Long Island is well-positioned to reopen, citing that the number of deaths and hospitalizations has "been on the downswing."

"Certain people are still edgy about having us come to the house for a service call or installation," Ginsberg said, adding that he and his technicians follow proper safety protocols at work, "but a lot of people seem excited to move forward — I myself want to move forward."

Phil Tavella, owner of Philip Joseph Jewelers in Bellmore, has been operating in limited capacity. When the store fully closed at one point, he still received calls from elderly clients looking to get pacemakers and watches fixed. 

“We follow safety protocols and someone comes in maybe once an hour,” he said. “I can’t see why we can’t do that.” 

Tavella was critical of the statewide plan that mandated small jewelry stores like his stay closed, while larger outlets, such as Target and Costco — which also sell jewelry — could stay open. 

“Here, everything is one-on-one, versus when you go to Costco and there are ten or more people in line,” he said. “Why are they allowed to open when everyone else can’t, even though we follow the same rules?”

The reopening the economy will play out by region in three distinct phases hereafter:

Phase Two: Professional services, finance and insurance, retail, administrative support, and real estate, rental and leasing. 

Phase Three: Restaurants and food services, beyond takeout and delivery.

Phase Four: Arts, entertainment and recreation, and education.

If the number of deaths, hospitalizations and new Covid-19 cases remains stable or declines for two weeks, a region can move on to the next phase of reopening.

Governor Cuomo rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange Tuesday, the first day the trading floor has been open in two months because of the coronavirus pandemic. The symbolic gesture came on the same day the Mid-Hudson Valley started Phase One reopening of its economy, and only one day before Long Island was to begin the first phase.

As of May 24, Long Island had still not met two of the seven criteria to start Phase One; it had not seen a 14-day decline in hospital deaths, and it did not have a sufficient number of contract tracers in place to identify Covid-19 hot spots and isolate them. As of May 26, it had seen the necessary drop in deaths, and was bringing the last of the required contact tracers on board, enabling the Island to reopen May 27, according to the governor.

"As more regions of the state begin reopening," Cuomo tweeted Tuesday, "we are carefully monitoring health data to make sure that everything is going in the reight direction. We rely on science and data to guide us — not emotion or politics."

Only New York City remains to start Phase One among the state's 10 regions. It was unclear, however, when the city would be able to begin. As of May 24, it had met four of the seven criteria. It did not have enough available hospital beds and intensive care beds, and needed more contact tracers.

Also of concern, the governor said, New York City was still seeing especially high Covid-19 infection rates in minority neighborhoods — at times as high has 40 percent, compared to the city-wide average of 20 percent.

To prepare for Phase One reopening, the governor said over the Memorial Day weekend, the Long Island Rail Road was sanitizing its trains and adding cars to them to enable riders to spread out more. A recent Herald tour of South Shore LIRR stations during rush hour found only a handful of riders at any one station.

Cuomo emphasized that personal behavior will determine the success — or failure — of the reopening process. "The trajectory," he said Tuesday, "is decided by people."

He repeated that people should wear masks in public spaces, wash hands frequently and maintain social distance. "We want [the] economy to come roaring back," he said.