Chambers of commerce on the East End are rallying local businesses to press the governor to “open the East End now.”

In an email to chamber members on both forks, the organizations are urging business owners to call the county’s help and information line 311 to demand that some restrictions on businesses be relaxed on the East End in time for Memorial Day weekend.

Riverhead Chamber of Commerce president Bob Kern said East End businesses are extremely worried that the summer season will be lost to the COVID crisis unless some changes are quickly implemented.

And if the season is lost, many businesses will not survive— especially restaurants, largely shut down since March 15,  Kern said.

“The fact that the East End microeconomic environment is not being acknowledged is catastrophic,” he said.

He said loss of the summer season means a $6 billion loss to the regional economy.

“What’s the plan for the financial pandemic this is causing?” Kern asks. “Basically you got punched to the ground and then kicked in the head.”

Kern said business owners are finding it impossible to communicate with the governor’s office. Some have sent business reopening plans to the state and have not had any response. The uncertainty is maddening, he said.

“The bottom line is people are frustrated — more than frustrated. Businesses are discussing a possible class action against the state,” Kern said.

Businesses can reopen safely with measures in place to protect the public and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he said.

Restaurants need to be able to have outdoor seating, he said, and towns should allow tents for outdoor seating.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she asked Supervisor Yvette Aguiar to put the subject of outdoor seating on the town board work session agenda next week. Giglio said one solution might be having a large tent put up in the riverfront parking lot for downtown restaurants to share. Restaurants could also use sidewalk dining.

“When restaurants are allowed to reopen, if they can only use half their seats, they won’t be able to survive without outdoor seating to expand their capacity,” Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said.

“We have to reconsider public spaces,” he said. “Maybe some roads will need to be closed.”

Southampton Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he has been working with local restaurants to plan reopening.

“I do like the idea expanded outdoor seating, expanding into the street in some places like Riverhead, Greenport and Sag harbor,” Schneiderman said. “They may have to work a little with the health department and the State Liquor Authority to adjust or relax regulations.”

The state has established a four-phase reopening plan:

  • Phase One: Construction, Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting, Retail (limited to curbside or in-store pickup or drop off), Manufacturing, Wholesale Trade
  • Phase Two: Professional Services, Retail, Administrative Support, Real Estate Rental & Leasing
  • Phase Three: Restaurants and Food Services
  • Phase Four: Arts, Entertainment, Recreation and Education

Restaurants have been allowed to operate for takeout and delivery only. But most restaurants offering takeout and delivery report their business being down by 50% or more.

“We’re losing at least one or two businesses a day that will never open up again,” said Jack McCarthy, president of the Suffolk Restaurants and Taverns Association. “They’ve been
so severely hurt — there’s no way they’re going to survive the next year, year and a half.”

That’s precisely what Kern and the other chamber of commerce leaders fear.

The businesses that most depend on the summer season for survival — such as restaurants, bars and hotels — are scheduled to be the last ones to reopen under the state plan, Kern noted.

The Southold supervisor said the town supervisors have been asking the county executive right along to push the governor to move restaurants from Phase Three to Phase Two.

“We bring that up every day,” Russell said. “But everything is really up to the state.”

Kern said it feels like small businesses aren’t really being heard.

“My experience in the last 2 1/2 months is, it doesn’t matter what we do — there’s a wall,” he said.

That’s why the chambers are urging their members to call the county 311 hotline to ask for action to allow them to open for Memorial Day weekend, and to allow restaurants to have outdoor seating, and to ask for eight months of property tax relief.

Kern said he’s not optimistic it will actually do any good.

“There’s a wall,” he said again.

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Denise Civiletti
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