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Black business owner from West Hempstead faces reopening hurdles

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When Long Island entered the second phase of reopening its economy June 10, Dr. Talonda Thomas, director of education and CEO of New York Musician’s Center in Bellmore, readied for a return to normalcy.

Before the pandemic took hold in March, more than 700 students filled Thomas’s business weekly for guitar, bass, vocal, piano and drum lessons led by a staff of teachers from around the world. To comply with social distancing, instruction shifted to Zoom, which proved difficult for Thomas’s students, some of whom are young children and older adults.

“Guiding a student on an instrument is easier to do in person,” said Thomas, of West Hempstead. “There were a lot of setbacks in the process, but we got creative.”

Thomas holds a bachelor of music from SUNY Potsdam and a doctorate from Capella University, specializing in kindergarten-to-12 education studies. The 33-year-old has been a vocal music teacher in the Freeport School District for the past 13 years, and last year joined Elmont Memorial High School as its music chairwoman.

She founded NYMC in 2006 and conducted lessons from her former Glen Cove home until September 2013, when the center grew into the Bellmore storefront. Despite comments from concerned friends about her decision to establish the business in a predominantly white neighborhood, Thomas said the community has been “outstanding and receptive.”

“I couldn’t be prouder to have my business” in Bellmore, she said. “For many of our kids with special needs, their outlet is music, and they haven’t had that in so long. Those who are underserved now have an opportunity to express themselves, and that, to me, means the world.”

Thomas’s road to reopening coincided with a push by consumers in Nassau County and beyond to support Black-owned businesses. Black community leaders in places like Elmont, Glen Cove and West Hempstead have stressed the importance of uplifting Black-owned small businesses, as protests against institutionalized racism and police brutality continue nationwide.

Thomas, however, experienced a series of unexpected setbacks after she tried to reopen on June 15, which she said white-owned music schools did not. In mid-June, local music schools were allowed to reopen under Phase 2 for retail. But two days after Thomas reopened, an official from the Nassau County fire marshal’s office arrived at NYMC and shut her down, saying a complaint had been filed against the business, she said.

The fire marshal indicated that the complaint might have been filed by a disgruntled former employee or a competing business owner who sought to keep NYMC shuttered.

“We had to issue a lot of refunds to parents who had anticipated to enroll their kids once we [fully] reopened,” Thomas said. “Because of the pandemic, we lost 25 percent of our clients [about 200 students], but some of them came back when we were re-registering.”

This second shutdown “brought up a lot of confusion and frustration with my staff,” Thomas said. “The question I kept asking myself was, ‘Why was everyone else able to open?’” 

In a June 23 email, Assistant Chief Fire Marshal Michael Uttaro assured Thomas she could reopen under Phase 2, despite some confusing language on the New York Forward website, which breaks down which industries can reopen under each phase.

Schools, Uttaro wrote, were not permitted to reopen until Phase 4 Ultimately, however, he determined that NYMC could reopen for retail.

A day later, Thomas reopened NYMC for the second time, only to receive a similar complaint — this time from the New York State Department of Labor. State officials said they received a complaint about the center reopening from a former employee who did not want to return to work, according to Thomas.

She said she believes the same employee might have also filed the complaint with the county fire marshal’s office.

“Many of my friends who are also music school owners — who are older white men — had more success in their reopening process,” Thomas said. “They’ve had no complaints against them. They receive funding through the government that I was denied. These are just hurdles that [I’m] accustomed to trying to overcome.”

NYMC reopened for limited business on June 24.

For more information about the center, visit https://nymcmusic.com/.

Visvajit Sriramrajan contributed to this story.