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COVID-19 Takes a Toll on Westchester Businesses and Theaters

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Photo by TRXR4KDS at English Wikipedia

The Hilton Westchester, the Castle Hotel & Spa, the Westchester Broadway Theatre, Sears, and Lord & Taylor are a few pandemic losses.

At Christmas, my wife and I witnessed one of the last dying days of Lord & Taylor in Eastchester. This wasn’t a holiday shopping expedition but a cathartic exercise, a curiosity-driven glimpse into the destructive power of the pandemic.

What had once been a proud department store was reduced to a threadbare flea market.

The nude mannequins told the story: Luminescent, hairless, and hopelessly obsolete, they were too frail to be repurposed as crash-test dummies. They stood in rows, like silent, extraterrestrial clones of Jeff Bezos, refugees from the planet COVID, telepathically conveying the message: Take me to your fulfillment center!

Brick-and-mortar businesses come and go as a matter of course. But COVID was a swift and cruel destroyer of once-thriving businesses. Taken as a whole, the casualty list for Westchester County is striking: the Hilton Westchester, the Castle Hotel & Spa, the Westchester Broadway Theatre, Sears, and the aforementioned Lord & Taylor to name just a few. And lest we forget the Main Street haunts — the friendly corner saloons, small restaurants, mom-and-pop stores, and movie houses that were a part of the fabric of daily suburban life but simply couldn’t survive the lockdown. At first, some were deemed “temporarily closed,” until the merchants who operated on goodwill and thin margins got wise to the mutating plague and closed them for good.

Bronxville

Photo by TRXR4KDS at English Wikipedia

At the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, in March, the state comptroller’s office reported that 78% of New York businesses with fewer than 500 employees were still suffering financial hardship. However grim the prognosis, the dry data can’t fully capture the sense of loss so funereally expressed, for example, by hundreds of loyal patrons of the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, which closed in October, after 46 years. (Reports have it that the theater will be gutted and used as a warehouse.)

“Hubby broke the news to me like someone had died,” one woman commented on the WBT Facebook page. “I have already cried multiple times today!”

After I posted photos of my Lord & Taylor excursion on social media, a lifelong store customer commented that she “felt like I was at a wake. Very sad.”

None of this is meant to overlook the tragic cost in human life. More than 2,400 people have died from the pandemic in Westchester alone —a sobering reminder to keep things in perspective.

Phil Reisman

Phil Reisman / Photo by Stefan Radtke

At the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, in March, the state comptroller’s office reported that 78% of New York businesses with fewer than 500 employees were still suffering financial hardship.

Still and all, we are talking about livelihoods if not actual lives. And if it’s a sin to lament the loss of a familiar, welcoming place where you were happy to spend your money, well, at least it’s a forgivable sin.

I was happy to spend my money at the Bronxville movie theater, one of those familiar, welcoming places that was temporarily closed until it was shut down for good. The theater had been on Kraft Avenue since the advent of talkies, and it was where I took my wife on our first date. We saw the Seven Percent Solution.

Movie theaters have been on the precipice of extinction for a long time. COVID pushed many of the survivors off the edge, or, in the case of Alamo Drafthouse, into the financial limbo of Chapter 11. In the year 2020, national ticket sales declined by an astounding 82%, giving new meaning to the word “unsustainable.”

Knowing full well the challenges facing the movie-house business, not to mention the impatience of profit-minded chain ownership, I never took the Bronxville theater’s existence for granted. Nevertheless, I was saddened when Bronxville’s mayor, Mary Marvin, reported in January that the theater had closed permanently.

In an article for Patch, Marvin wrote that the three-screen theater was more than merely a local concern, but a place that attracted people from surrounding communities who would also go to a restaurant, buy an ice cream cone, and window-shop and then come back the next day to buy something they had seen. She concluded, “My feeling … is we have to do everything we can not to lose our movie theater.”

There’s hope. A few months after the theater closed, Marvin told me in an email that “two people connected with the village” were trying to work out a deal to reopen it. As of this writing, she said it “was super, super promising” and that she was crossing her fingers. I am too.