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Bellmore-Merrick restaurants remain in flux as pandemic drags on

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As New York City’s restaurant owners prepare to reopen for indoor dining this week, Long Island’s restaurateurs are still fighting to stay afloat under Covid-related restrictions that have been in effect since last June.

Some local restaurants, such as Left Coast Kitchen & Cocktails and Bayou Jones, shuttered amid the pandemic. Others, like Anthony’s Kitchen & Cocktails in Bellmore and Off the Brook in Merrick, the sister restaurant of Seaford’s Il Bacetto, enjoyed grand openings. But a common thread that connects all members of the industry, John Amaruso said, is their ability to survive the hard times.

“Restaurants and bars have adapted since prohibition,” said Amaruso, who owns Bourbon & Brews, in Merrick. “People want to go out and socialize and interact with their communities, so it’s hard to say they’re done for.”

To prepare for the colder months, Amaruso set up miniature tents over the outdoor tables at his establishment; each is equipped with a heat lamp. But after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in November that restaurants and bars with a state liquor license must close by 10 p.m. to reduce the spread of Covid-19, Bourbon & Brews saw a “big reduction” in outdoor dining, the owner said.

Amaruso views the curfew as arbitrary, he said, and added that it could cause people to instead go to their friends’ homes — where no Covid-related regulations exist — to hang out.

“Bars and restaurants have somebody there to enforce these things,” he explained, noting mask-wearing, sanitizing and social distancing. “Forcing people into homes, that’s where the spread happens.”

Paul Telese, co-owner of Elisa’s Ristorante in North Bellmore, has also adjusted to hosting diners outside, even during the winter, but renting tents and heaters costs money, he said. He added that the state’s 10 p.m. curfew has also proven to be an issue.

“When you lose the big parties, catering and late night [crowd], that becomes a big hit,” he explained. “Business is not what it was . . . and when the economy suffers, everybody suffers.”

Bellmore native Maria Cassano is also critical of the curfew and believes there should be an even playing field when it comes to imposing Covid-related restrictions on businesses. She recalled going to Roosevelt Field Mall at the height of holiday shopping season, where she observed droves of people wearing their masks improperly.

“Those stores are not disinfecting every time like we are,” Cassano said. “We’re taking every precaution known to mankind . . . but other businesses have been allowed to run like nothing’s happened.”

Cassano owns American Beauty Bar & Grill in the hamlet with her husband, Michael, and business partner, Skip Curth. The team also manages an offshoot of the restaurant in Massapequa. Because Bellmore’s location relied on a loyal late-night crowd, Cassano said, “The 10 o’clock rule killed us.”

Cassano was forced to close American Beauty a few months ago, citing a lack of revenue. And while the team hopes to reopen in some form, “There’s too many question marks around us,” she said.

At The Vine Wine Bar in Merrick, owner Lynn Mione has been adapting to the throes of the pandemic since day one. She recently sold a franchise of the business to two native New Yorkers, Melony Fiore and James Speelman, who plan to open the bar’s third location in Lake Wylie, South Carolina this summer.

While the move is indicative of the industry’s continued evolution, business at The Vine’s Merrick location has plateaued during the pandemic. “With the 10 p.m. closure, we’ve lost the ability to turn tables over, and we need to do that in order to make a profit,” Mione explained. “We’re in no better position today than we were several months ago.”

Telese looks forward to the day when he can have patrons at the restaurant as he did before the pandemic, adding that the vaccine could aid in having that vision realized.

Mione said that as more people get vaccinated and Covid levels decline, she expects some of the current restrictions on bars and restaurants to be lifted. Until then, she is taking advantage of the paycheck protection program and economic industry disaster loans through the Small Business Administration.

“Until there are no other measures to take, we’re going to be here,” she said. “My goal and my hope is these restrictions will be lifted before I run out of options.”