Greenport businesses brace for fewer customers, economic hardship as COVID-19 cases rise

“Social distancing” to help curb the spread of the coronavirus may have a dramatic economic impact on North Fork business owners.

Whether forced to close due to employees who have contracted COVID-19 or closures out of an abundance of caution, many businesses are making swift decisions to stay afloat during a time of year that’s already challenging.

“Town is very quiet,” said Scott Raulsome, who owns Burton’s Bookstore on Front Street in Greenport Village. The bookstore remains open, but quiet, he said. “We haven’t had more than two customers in the store at the same time.”

The economic impact, certainly in the short-term, is severe

Scott Russell

Though open, Mr. Raulsome said he is taking additional precautions —sanitize, sanitize, sanitize — and is planning to limit how many customers can be inside the store at one time. He’s also emphasizing other methods of transactions that aren’t in-person.

“People who are going to be home for a couple of weeks, they’re trusting me to pick out books for them,” he said, emphasizing that he has the ability to ship and even offer local delivery.

Mr. Raulsome isn’t the only business owner who is remaining open, staying vigilant and trying to stay positive.

March is always a rough go — weather-driven and dependent on regular customers.

“We came into March knowing already it would be a down month and now you put this on top of it. We’re playing it by ear,” said Nancy Kouris of the Blue Duck Bakery.

Burton’s Books on Friday afternoon. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

She remarked in a phone interview Friday afternoon that she’s not expecting to see her regulars, many of whom are elderly residents, and fears that public health concerns will deter tourists.

“We understand, we totally get it,” she said. “But it’s scary economically.”

The bakery is already facing uncertainty as it plans to supply bread for events, such as the Riverhead Farmers Market. As of Thursday, the event was on. By Friday morning, it was canceled.

“The bread was in production and ready to be baked tomorrow morning,” Ms. Kouris said.

Now, it will be baked and donated locally to CAST and the Little Free Pantry in Greenport.

Supervisor Scott Russell said Friday that the impact is felt by business throughout the town, not just Greenport.

“The economic impact, certainly in the short-term, is severe,” he said. “Impacts on the financial health of businesses in the long-term is difficult to predict.”

Front Street Station, which briefly closed Thursday to sanitize the building as a precautionary measure, reopened Friday. Owner Sharon Sailor said the eatery closed after an employee — who hasn’t worked since March 7 — had contact with someone who’s tested positive for coronavirus. She said she’s offering customers options such as single-use silverware and paper menus to reduce the chance for spreading germs, as well as continuing to offer pick-up and delivery.

“We’re trying to push through it together,” Ms. Sailor said. “I’m concerned, financially, for myself and friends in the village that are on a shoestring right now. It’s a little scary.”

Ms. Sailor said they will continue to compensate their quarantined employee, but expressed concerns for the hundreds of service industry workers who rely on tips to make ends meet.

“We would be bustling today,” she said Friday, where temperatures reached the mid-60s once clouds cleared. 

Meanwhile, some small business owners have assessed the risk and closed their doors.

Rena Casey-Wilhelm, who owns The Weathered Barn with her husband, Jason, decided to close over health concerns, since they both have compromised immune systems and elderly parents.

“When I was 21, I came down with pneumonia, the sickest I have ever been in my whole life,” Ms. Casey-Wilhelm, who has asthma, said in an interview. “I could barely breathe and it was frightening. Now in my 50s, there was just no way I was going to put myself in that position.”

Two of their employees, who are both in their 20s, are impacted by the store’s decision to close but will still be paid for their scheduled hours, she said.

“The last thing we wanted anyone to feel was an obligation to work because of their potentially lost earnings,” Ms. Casey-Wilhelm said.

Finances, she said, will be tight since business owners rely on the prior summer’s earnings to get through. On Thursday, the Small Business Administration announced that disaster assistance loans of up to $2 million will be made available to small business harmed by the coronavirus crisis.

“Our agency will work directly with state Governors to provide targeted, low-interest disaster recovery loans to small businesses that have been severely impacted by the situation,” SBA administrator Jovita Carranza said in a statement.

A request would have to be made from Gov. Andrew Cuomo in order for such loans to be issued locally.

Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that small businesses in the city with fewer than 100 employees could be eligible for small loans if they could document that sales decreased by 25% amid the outbreak.

“Hopefully, arrangements are made,” Ms. Sailor said. “But we’ll weather this storm.”

Ms. Casey-Wilhelm and other business owners are also optimistic. She urged community members to continue supporting local businesses as they work through the hurdles.

“We are all in this together and this virus affects each and every one of us in so many ways health-wise as well as our local economy … We feel confident we will all come out A-OK on the other side.”