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How the pandemic changed these North Fork businesses for the better

A decade ago, in the midst of the recession, Paula DiDonato was working as a consultant for American Express on an initiative to help small businesses eke out a more equitable share of holiday spending.

Small Business Saturday emerged as an alternative to frenzied Black Friday promotions and has grown into its own tradition.

Fast forward 10 years and Ms. DiDonato found herself staring down another economic disaster, this time as the owner of The Giving Room, a yoga studio and juice bar in Southold.

Classes were held via Zoom. Juices were sold through a drive-thru window. An online ordering system was established.

As a broad reopening of the economy began that summer, Ms. DiDonato helped build momentum with an alliance of shopkeepers, proclaiming ‘Southold Is Back’ and urging people to shop small and local.

Nearly 30 businesses now participate in the semi-regular events with specials, tastings and other experiences.

“It was a nice collective way to be able to navigate that time,” Ms. DiDonato said. “The pandemic gave us all enough of a pause and a need to come together.”

What began as a temporary, inconvenient two weeks to curb a novel virus has now upended every aspect of life, from how people live and work to how companies interact with their employees and what supply chain and labor disruptions mean locally.

The phrase “new normal” rapidly entered our lexicon. But what does that mean? As we enter the third year of pandemic life, we spoke to several North Fork businesses about what lasting impacts the pandemic has had. Here’s what we learned about how they’ve adapted, expanded services, technology and as a result, thrived.

DIGITAL DISRUPTION

Strong’s Marine owner Jeff Strong always considered his company to be relatively tech savvy. The pandemic forced him to reconsider.

“We realized we had a long way to go,” he said.

Like companies across the country, his is set up in a hybrid model reliant on teleconferencing platforms. He added a second IT position and now even has two employees that live out of state and work remotely. “I would have never expected that,” Mr. Strong said.

A shift to online sales was also a lifesaver for many in the hospitality industry. 

Temporarily relaxed state restrictions allowed Greenport Harbor Brewing Company to introduce online sales and ship beer within New York State. 

“As a brewery, we’re going through and trying to see what worked and what didn’t during the pandemic,” co-founder Richard Vandenburgh said.

They’ve since pursued a change to their license to allow online sales and in-state shipping to continue and are also exploring other avenues to distribute their products out of state.

“We get a lot of requests for Leaf Pile in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida,” he explained.

On Shelter Island, Marie Eiffel, who owns an eponymous gourmet food market, also introduced online ordering. “We built an online ordering system overnight because we couldn’t keep up with the phone orders,” she said.

If you’ve dined in a restaurant since the pandemic began, chances are you’ve aimed your phone at a black-and-white square known as a QR code. Though the technology has been around for more than a decade, they’ve soared in popularity as a paper menu alternative to reduce potential spread of the virus and other germs.

DiDonato said technology has made her business more efficient and inclusive. She plans to always have a virtual yoga class option going forward, as many clients are part-time residents who still enjoy practicing with their favorite local teachers. “It’s helped maintain a sense of community and place to go,” Ms. DiDonato said, throughout the pandemic. One student spends half of the year on Shelter Island and the other half in Switzerland, where they log in for virtual sessions.

“All of these people are coming for the same purpose: to find a sense of community, compassion, empathy and wellness,” she said.

SUPPLY CHAIN ISSUES

The pandemic shed light on how fragile the global supply chain is, forcing business owners to get creative and plan ahead.

Inventory has dwindled at car dealerships around the world largely thanks to short supply of microchips that power everything from motorized windows to infotainment systems. 

It’s been particularly challenging for small, family-run dealerships like Mullen Motors in Southold.

“I don’t have 120 cars in stock anymore,” said owner Rich Mullen. “I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to that again.”

Weeks go by between deliveries and on a “good day,” Mr. Mullen has 20 cars in stock. A shipment in late January included approximately 30 vehicles; 15 of them had been sold before hitting the pavement.

He’s seen an uptick in customers placing orders through his dealership from the manufacturer due to lingering inventory concerns. At least 60% of vehicles Mr. Mullen sells now are done by placing orders, a figure he estimates has doubled since the onset of the pandemic.

“It’s a little bit of a different way to buy a car,” he said. “You might wait a little longer, but a lot more people will sit down and do a custom order to get exactly what they want.”

It’s not just one industry impacted either. Mr. Vandenburgh said he’s had difficulty sourcing everything from brewing sugar to aluminum cans.

STAFFING

Companies that were able to expand work-from-home capabilities for their employees did so thanks to technology. Mr. Strong said it took some getting used to in order to strike a balance.

“Early on, it was almost like ‘When do I stop working?’ We had to train ourselves and put some boundaries in place to not overdo it. It’s a work in progress,” he said.

It’s also led him to a personal “awakening” surrounding mental health as employees deal with everyday life during a global pandemic.

“We’re trying to do a better job being aware of that, training leaders to be on the lookout and how we can be sensitive, empathetic and supportive of our staff and clients,” Mr. Strong said.

Many large companies have continued delaying return to office dates. Kevin O’Connor, CEO of Dime Community Bank, said that while adapting is important — his staff went remote during the omicron surge — it’s time to get back to the office. “The camaraderie, the efficiencies, the culture of organizations really comes from interacting with each other,” he said.

The hospitality sector was hit particularly hard by staffing shortages, attempting to carry on with less people.

“On Shelter Island, it’s never been easy to find staff,” Ms. Eiffel explained. “But not like this.”

HEALTH & WELLNESS

Of all industries impacted by COVID-19, the pandemic has wrought some of the most extreme changes on the health care industry.

The widespread adoption of telemedicine might be the most enduring facet to emerge. Remote consultations with physicians have allowed medical facilities to cut the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus and improved health care access for many, especially those without easy access to transportation.

The practice was a “game-changer,” according to Paul Connor, president and CEO at Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital. 

“As we go forward, you’re going to find this technology will be further refined and truly allow access, when we have more normal circumstances, to more subspecialty care that translates easily over the telemedicine program like dermatology and like neurology,” Mr. Connor said. 

Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead was also exploring telemedicine when the pandemic hit. 

“We don’t necessarily have every single specialty in-house 24/7,” said executive director Amy Loeb. “We were already leveraging telemedicine for things like psychiatry and stroke and critical care and others,” she said, adding that the hospital recently started tele-neonatology. 

Telemedicine is likely to continue even after the COVID-19 virus becomes less disruptive, especially on the East End of Long Island where there’s more limited access to medical facilities and a disproportionately older population. 

“All of those things that are associated with that population — chronic illness, transportation — all that will roll into being able to access care,” Mr. Connor said. “Telemedicine will certainly be one of the tools that will facilitate care for this population.”

Ms. Loeb said the hospital is busier than it’s ever been, and not just because of COVID-19. During the pandemic, many patients put off seeking care for chronic illnesses or cancer screenings, leading the disease to be discovered a bit later. 

She said maintaining a relationship with your health care providers and pursuing preventative care leads to better outcomes.

“The future is never certain, but what we’ve learned through this pandemic is that we rise to the needs of our community,” she said.

Even outside of hospitals and doctor’s offices, health and wellness took center stage as a respiratory infection that is particularly deadly for those with comorbidities swept through.

Ms. DiDonato said sales at the Giving Room’s juice bar skyrocketed and she saw a need for more outdoor yoga sessions, including at the picturesque Landcraft Garden Foundation in Mattituck, Southold Historical Museum, Peconic Bay Vineyards and Mattebella Vineyards.

“This awareness of the fragility of life made everyone a little more conscious and desiring of things that are healthy,” she said. “Nutrition, community and activity are all important for healing.”

LOOKING AHEAD

If we’ve learned anything from the Great Recession, it’s that innovation often follows moments of crisis.

“Any struggle usually makes you stronger,” Mr. O’Connor said. “Out of this, obviously there’s a lot of tragedy, but I think we will be stronger for it.” 

He said relationships with his bank’s clients — particularly small business owners — have never been stronger.

The bank oversaw 4,000 federal Payroll Protection Program loans that provided a lifeline to businesses amid uncertainty and he said of those, just a “handful” of companies did not survive. “I’ll take that as a measure of success,” he said.

Mr. O’Connor frequently describes himself as a natural optimist and believes the East End economy has never been stronger, thanks to a confluence of factors including a more diverse, year-round population.

“I think [our country] has bounced back better than most and faster than most, which I think is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of our country,” he said. 

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