Stressed local businesses counting down the days until the state’s phased reopening

Beginning tomorrow, four Upstate New York regions will be permitted to begin a phased reopening of businesses that have been closed since mid-March. Phase one includes:

  • Construction
  • Manufacturing
  • Retail – Curbside Pickup
  • Wholesale Trade
  • Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting

(More info on the phases)

The Mid-Hudson region, which for the purposes of re-opening includes Ulster, Dutchess, Sullivan, Orange, Putnam, Westchester and Rockland counties, is lagging on two of the state’s seven indicators required to enter phase one of re-opening: a two-week decline in new deaths or fewer than 5 deaths per day average and overall hospitalizations at 2 or fewer per 100,000 population. (Ulster County, where many of our readers live, actually meets all seven requirements if taken alone. But that’s not how the plan works. See the online dashboard for a detailed breakdown.)

The region seems poised to dip below the threshold for hospitalizations per capita soon. But on the other metric, we’ve gone only 3 days with a declining death toll and are averaging more than 13 times the maximum daily average. As such, the earliest Mid-Hudson could enter phase one would be May 24.

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We checked in with a variety of local businesses to see how they’re holding up.

 

Watching and waiting

New Paltz Eye Care is considered an essential business, but Dr. Elinor Descovich and optician Constance Rubow haven’t been seeing anyone who doesn’t have an urgent need. They’ve been using that time to reconfigure their storefront operation and reconsider all of their procedures.

“We wanted to do our part to flatten the curve,” Descovich said. The business opted to keep their staff of a dozen part- and full-timers home until they felt they could keep the novel coronavirus from being transmitted on their watch. Among the changes are ones that are already becoming commonplace: plexiglass sneeze shields between customers and staff members, temperature checks and health questions at the door; and masks being required of anyone inside. Hand-washing, already a standard practice in most places, will become even more widespread and be supplemented by hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes at every work station.

An ultraviolet light will be used to disinfect hard surfaces such as eyeglasses, computer keyboards and mouses, and other surfaces that can’t be wiped with alcohol. At first there won’t be more than one patient — plus any caregiver — inside at a time, as the processes are mastered. In addition to masks for the protection of others, staff members will now be wearing scrubs to make it easier to wash away potential infection.

It doesn’t seem that the money to pay for all these changes can come from the paycheck protection program loan recently received. Three-quarters of that money must go to rehiring and paying employees. Rubow said a “big investment” in new equipment was necessary to operate at all under the circumstances.

“We all do what we have to do,” Descovich said. “It’s a different time, now.”

The bulk of the guidance they’ve received has come from colleagues and trade groups, they said. Their plans are to reopen May 18 if the governor does not extend the pause order, but to reevaluate otherwise. They are continuing to serve patients who can’t wait, such as children developing new vision problems and diabetic patients in need of annual exams. But they prefer to hold off on routine care until that date.

 

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Bistro to return with curbside service

If you’ve ever hung around downtown New Paltz on a weekend morning or early afternoon looking for a bite to eat, you’re sure to have noticed a line of customers straggling out the door of the Main Street Bistro, waiting their turn to be seated. It takes some seriously bad weather to deter them. Locals have known for many decades – even under previous ownership as the Gay ‘90s, with very nearly the same menu and casual décor – that the brunch selections are worth the wait.

Something more malevolent than rain, sleet or snow is in the air these days, and Bistro owners Doug and Teresa Thompson decided to close the popular eatery for a while rather than cut back operations to curbside service. But as of this Friday, May 15, governor Andrew Cuomo has decreed that construction and manufacturing businesses in most upstate counties will be allowed to reopen. As of May 11, the Hudson Valley as a whole still had to satisfy two more of the state’s metrics to qualify for this benediction: a 14-day decline in hospital deaths under two per 100,000 residents’ new hospitalizations.

Sit-down restaurant service remains on hold pending a later phase of the state reopening plan, but the Thompsons are taking the first phase of the rollout as their cue to reinstitute curbside service. Regulars are sure to rejoice. “The four phases seem appropriate. I feel like we should not rush into opening everything at once,” Doug says. “We are reopening May 15 for to-go. Moving forward, we’re only going to employ what we are allowed to have, as far as social distancing and capacity allows. We are creating online menus, so guests can use their phone at the tables for menus and for to-go ordering.”

It was financial pressure that convinced the Thompsons to reopen the Bistro’s doors to the public this week. “I am opening now because bills need to be paid. SBA loans only go so far and only pay certain things. Insurance is still due. It’s nice that companies are giving you three months, but that three months’ worth of insurance and rent is still due,” notes Doug. He is hoping that the governor will open restaurants by June to at least 50 percent capacity. “I feel it is going to be a slow process in getting customers back. It is going to take a lot of time, effort and money to make sure new social distancing and sanitizing practices are put in place.”

He’s hoping “we can all hang on.” He hopes SUNY comes back. ”There are a lot of hardworking business owners with families in our community that rely on their business for income.” Thompson said. “The summer and fall months’ income help get us through the winter. If this all does not turn around by winter, a lot of restaurants and businesses could be closed next year.”

 

Entertainment will be among the last businesses to reopen

Further down Main Street at the Water Street Market, Harry Lipstein juggles two businesses, his commercial real-estate company, Cornwall Builders Corp., and the not-for-profit Denizen Theatre. It’s clear to him that a phased rollout is the way to go, in terms of restarting the local economy.

“My real-estate business has a small office, and they have been working effectively remotely. When the time is appropriate, they will go back to the workplace,” he says. “We still had to maintain properties, service our tenants. We are charged with the safety of our tenants, paying our property and school taxes, insurance et cetera.”

Lipstein contends that building contractors working mindfully together on a jobsite can manage their tasks in a way that doesn’t facilitate spread of the virus. For getting the construction trades back up and running, “May 15 seems absolutely appropriate,” he says. “Construction outside of the urban areas occur in a very controlled setting. Whether it is a single-family house or commercial property, I believe there are ways to be very conscious of how to interact with other tradesmen, as well as the public, for safety.”

Inviting an audience into the tight confines of a black-box theater is another matter. “The theater is currently closed, although we are working remotely planning and selecting work for future productions,” he says. “As a theater owner, I believe it is not time to open our doors. We are still in a very cautious state of mind as a society, and we have to be respectful of people’s feelings toward being too close to strangers.”

Lipstein isn’t yet ready to project a date when he’d feel comfortable reopening Denizen. It’s a very time-intensive process. “We can’t just open our doors and run a play,” he says. “It takes many months of preparation: picking a cast, rehearsals, getting the rights to the plays et cetera. Generally, there is at least a three-month lag time between wanting to do a play and being able to produce it.”

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Sustaining an arts organization is always a daunting task, but especially in these times, with no income streams from ticket sales. “The financial costs of these mandatory closings have been extremely painful for many individuals,” Lipstein laments. “The PPP program has been extremely cumbersome and difficult to work with.”

 

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Manufacturing consent 

What about manufacturing businesses, which have Cuomo’s blessing to resume operations this Friday in much of the state, though not yet in the mid-Hudson? “We think May 15 is a good time to reopen, assuming the number of infections continue to trend downward,” says Darin Seim, president of R&F Handmade Paints in Kingston. “We primarily manufacture artists’ paints and teach classes in how to use them. We have cancelled all classes and workshops through [at least] the summer, which is sad, but does allow us to expand production into that space in our building. We are working on a plan right now that will allow staff to spread out to a great degree, but continue to work and be productive. Several administrative staff will work from home, and we may have a staggered schedule to reduce the density of people in the building even further.”

Outside visitors will be appointment-only for the time being.

According to Seim, his employees’ “comfort level in returning to work” is the primary driver of any decisions to resume activity; but ironically, demand has not slackened, and supply-chain issues have arisen. “Artists continue to create, and much of their purchasing has shifted online, so we continue to receive orders that we can’t fill from retailers and distributors. Still, we can wait longer if that will help the long-term safety and health of our community.” profit.”

R&F is definitely feeling the financial pressure, despite having been able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which “has allowed us a little breathing room to get a plan in place for reopening,” Sein says. “We are fortunate in any number of ways, but one is that we make a couple of unique, high-quality products, and we have a devoted following for them. It hurts to be shut down, but the demand will be there, and we will bounce back, hopefully having learned something from all of this.”

 

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Retail adapts

Woodstock is a town whose retail businesses depend heavily on tourist traffic, so these are tough times indeed for their proprietors. Jacqueline Kellachan and James Conrad, co-owners of The Golden Notebook, are taking a philosophical view of the current crisis. “All we can do is let the data on the disease guide economic policy for the region. We are comfortable with the regional approach that New York State is taking. More coordination now means less chaos and uncertainty later,” Kellachan says. “Woodstock is in Ulster County, in the mid-Hudson Valley, and there have been more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths in our region compared to upstate … By the guidelines, we need more time for those indicators to come down before we as a region, county and as a business can reopen.”

Business has not been entirely on hold during the pandemic. “Our bookstore has been doing online and telephone orders since March,” she explains. “We have curbside pickup, local deliveries and ship all over the US. What will figure most prominently into our calculations for reopening is guidance on the number of customers we can safely have in our space at one time, and continued guidance on the public wearing masks when they enter retail spaces. We have already made plans for how we will make safety adjustments to our retail space and protect our employees. We will be very ready to reopen once we get the green light. Our bookstore has been around 41 years. We have survived Amazon, and we will survive Covid 19.”

Jeanette and Anthony Aprile, co-owners of Clouds Gallery, a crafts store right on Woodstock’s village green since 1974, are feeling grateful right now that they haven’t had to lay off a large staff to keep their business afloat. “The last seven weeks have been difficult,” Jeanette Aprile reports. “We are a husband-and-wife business, so our situation is different from, let’s say, a restaurant, which has numerous employees and substantial operating expenses. However, if we have to stay closed beyond the end of May, it will become increasingly more difficult.”

The Apriles have found federal relief programs such as PPP loans to be clunky. “It has helped us to get through the last seven weeks. However, the guidance keeps changing regarding the terms of the federal relief packages, so it has created a certain level of uncertainty regarding the forgiveness and/or repayment of that relief.”

Clouds is ready to resume operations as soon as the state allows. “I think it would be an appropriate time to allow small retailers to open,” Jeanette Aprile said. “Most mom-and-pop Main Street small businesses can easily implement safety precautions such as enhanced cleaning and sanitizing, social distancing within the store, contactless payments, online/phone orders with curbside pickup, and limiting the number of people in the store. I feel it would be easier for small retail stores to implement and adhere to these guidelines then larger department stores …. We are the only employees, and therefore it would be fairly easy for us in terms of working together.”

 

 

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Socially distanced yoga 

Linda Lalita Winnick, who operates Shakti Yoga studios in Woodstock and Saugerties, is currently offering remote classes via Zoom. She’s eager to reopen her in-person classes, “if spaced properly and using protection,” as soon as permissible. “I can probably hold outdoor yoga classes. We did it the week before we were told to close, and it was safe because we followed the spacing and other guidelines,” she said. “It will be hard to be safe for indoor classes. I may be able to do it with a smaller group of students. I am lucky because my studio gets lots of sun and has cross-ventilation.”

Winnick’s decisions will be determined by the comfort level of her clients being in a public space to do yoga, but the rent she has to pay on her Saugerties space is increasing the financial pressure to resume business. “I am trying to reduce my overhead until I figure it out,” she said. “We are offering a combination of Zoom classes and are setting up outdoor locations — that limit tick exposure: the other plague! — to host our classes. It looks very promising. Trying to be flexible and patient, like a good yogini!”

 

Tight spaces are harder to reopen

David Santner is at a point in his life when he could retire instead of reopening the Bakery in New Paltz, a business he has nurtured alongside its own sourdough starter for the past 40 years. He believes that getting his landmark North Front Street business running again after the pandemic is the right thing to do. There are vendors to pay, and employees who have worked for him for decades, He opened the doors in 1981.

When and how the Bakery will be reopened remains to be seen, and Santner’s challenges and questions are among those shared by many local business owners. The local entrepreneur made his comments during a video conference facilitated by mayor Tim Rogers, part of a weekly check-in with business owners about how their companies are faring during the economic coma induced to limit the spread of a novel coronavirus.

The Bakery is a tight space, and maintaining a social distance of six feet would be a challenge on either side of the counter. It didn’t look economically viable to keep the eatery open once the governor ordered customers must remain outside, and instead Santner closed entirely, laying off a staff of 22. While hundreds of mostly college students have cycled through the counter jobs over the years, it’s more typical for someone on the kitchen staff to remain for “decades,” Santner said. One person has worked there since opening day in 1981.

Santner recalled those times, and how he was overcome by anxiety the night before he was due to present before the village planning board, which he understood had a reputation for rejecting businesses. He cut his iconic ponytail — which he’d had since eighth grade, and apparently was not gone long — and borrowed a suit to better his chances. Whether the haircut and suit helped is not known, but he was only asked questions about bagels and breads, and shown gratitude for opening a bakery in the village.

That’s actually all it was at first, with a staff of four turning out the bialys and the bagels, the breads and the rolls. Over time, newer bakers have introduced cakes and other sweets which commanded much of the display cases in recent years.

Reopening could mean returning the Bakery to its eponymous nature, but there’s a reason why Santner expanded to sandwiches and seating: people may have really wanted a bakery in town, but they weren’t spending enough to make one profitable. The cozy atmosphere made it a good place to meet or run into friends and neighbors, but that same coziness is just what the doctor isn’t ordering right now.

It’s also a tight fit behind the counter, where it takes three people to handle all the customers. That’s why Santner didn’t apply for paycheck protection program money, because he didn’t feel he could safely bring those workers back in the time period allotted.

He’s not convinced he could now turn any profit with just a bakery, but it’s possible all the baking experiments happening at home will bolster interest in fresh-baked goods once no one has the time to knead dough daily.

With all the uncertainty and unknowns, Santner remains optimistic about the community overall. “New Paltz will always be a successful place,” he said, because of its proximity to New York City and locations of rare beauty. There may be a period of painful adjustment ahead, as he feels the proportion of restaurants has been too high for many years and this crisis could result in many permanent closures. Within five years, though, he expects that the village will be as vibrant and desirable as ever.

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