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Can Westchester Businesses Survive the Pandemic?

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Last Thursday, after Governor Andrew Cuomo banned large gatherings and shuttered Broadway and Mayor Bill DeBlasio declared a state of emergency to cope with coronavirus, the first dominos began to fall for local businesses.

They landed with a thud when officials announced mandatory school closings and suggested that gatherings be limited to 50 people or less.

Today, Cuomo announced that 100% of New York’s work force must stay home, apart from essential workers and businesses. 

Business leaders in Westchester, the epicenter of the local outbreak, made difficult decisions that may have far-reaching implications as many residents panicked, descending like locusts on area supermarkets and picking the shelves clean. 

As the term social distancing became part of the lexicon, one local accountant requested that his clients avoid the office and send in tax documents by mail. A group of gyms and fitness instructors in Tarrytown offered live online classes and WestMed Medical Group added pre-screening and arrival protocols, rescheduled non-urgent office appointments and provided the opportunity to participate in virtual visits.

Some businesses refused to provide service within the containment zone in New Rochelle, according to Lohud.

Making things worse, insurance companies won’t reimburse businesses, so even a cleaning company like New Crystal Restoration in Port Chester is fielding calls for advice and consulting, but school districts and management companies are having a hard time covering the cost of deep cleaning large facilities, said owner Lisa Cordasco.

Also on Monday, the Federal Reserve in New York issued the Empire State Manufacturing Survey covering March 2 to 10 and the statewide results are grim: the general business index and six-month consumer confidence outlook fell to their lowest levels since 2009. Shipments and new orders nosedived, as well.

Localized statistics are unavailable, but “business is going to decrease and the hardest hit will be on our small businesses with under 50 employees,” said Bridget Gibbons, the county’s director of economic development. “As we practice social distancing, it’s going to have an impact on established habits.”

Help is available through expedited low interest loans administered by the federal Small Business Association, she said. If the federal government declares the state a disaster area (perhaps unlikely given the sour relationship between the governor and President Trump) economic disaster relief loans would also be available.

And, her office is working to encourage non-profit banks and other community partners to offer relief. How well newly laid off workers will fare remains to be seen.

The Westchester County Association website now has a section that links directly to government information and guidance on programs made available to businesses as related to coronavirus, here: westchester.org/coronavirus. This material includes information on financial support from the U.S. Small Business Administration, guidance on how to minimize the risk of work-related exposure, and general recommendations for businesses.

The situation is fluid, of course, but the hospitality industry, along with travel, feel the impact heavily. Especially disappointing for bars, moreover, is the intersection of the crisis with St. Patrick’s Day.

Many restaurants offered discounts for off-site and pickup orders to goose sales. Peter Liu, owner of O Mandarin in Hartsdale promoted gift cards along with take out and delivery specials. For him, business is off around 60%.

“All restaurants are struggling to get through this, but Asian restaurants suffer more,” said Liu. “We got crank calls; people think we all have the virus, but no one is questioning eating in an Italian restaurant. We can clean to the best of our ability, but we can’t control what people think.”

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Herrera at Sam’s of Gedney Way in White Plains, removed table clothes and seated parties at every other table, but with the new restrictions, he predicts restaurant revenues will drop 90 percent.

“It’s a difficult time, but we can get through this together and ‘this, too, shall pass,‘ ” he said. Businesses eventually weathered the 2008 recession and the dot-com collapse in 2001, he said, adding that he is worried about the recession that will likely follow this disruption, which could last six to ten weeks, he said.

Play spaces, museums and movie theaters closed on their own before the weekend, as did several shops in the nearly deserted Westchester Mall. On Sunday afternoon, traffic remained light along Central Avenue and many empty parking spaces dotted the downtown business districts in Scarsdale, Rye, Mamaroneck, Briarcliff Manor, and even Trader Joe’s and H Mart in Hartsdale, though the nearby Shake Shack hopped.

Beginning Sunday evening, the Shop Rite supermarket in Croton-on-Hudson reduced its hours so they can replenish the shelves. In the aisles of Whole Foods in White Plains on Sunday afternoon, shelf-stockers outnumbered shoppers. Gaping holes of merchandise indicated a run on pasta, bread, water, rice, beans, canned tomatoes, frozen foods, cleaning supplies and paper products, including toilet paper. One manager at Whole Foods said that he expects to see another surge if news reports indicate that the virus is spreading.

One of the worst things about the coronavirus for local businesses is the uncertainty about how long it will last, which makes it difficult to develop contingency plans. So far, public agencies like schools and libraries are cancelling events through month’s end, but these plans are tentative.

“My entire business is in limbo and not knowing how it’s going to shake out is the hard part,” said Joe Guilderson, president of Corporate Audio Visual Services, which lost out on four events in New Rochelle this month.

“From March 4 through the last two weeks, it all started to snowball,” he said. “Events got cancelled and many of them aren’t going to be rescheduled. I have lost all of my income for the foreseeable future.”

He will try to make lemons out of lemonade by promoting his virtual meeting capabilities.

Chereese Jervis-Hill at Events to Remember, an event planning firm in Mount Kisco, is also nervous.

“This is not good,” she said. “A few weeks ago, things started getting postponed, then cancelled. When the sports leagues shut down [on Thursday], that really sent everything into a tailspin. I went to my daughter’s lacrosse game and then my phone caught on fire, it was crazy.”

With her entire slate of events for the foreseeable future on hold, she empathizes with the non-profit organizations that will miss out on fundraising opportunities.

For Jennifer Flowers, president and CEO of Accreditation Guru, which counsels many non-profits, her preparations to attend and host panels at major national and regional conferences became moot for the moment when cancellations flooded her inbox on Wednesday. Events planned in Washington, D.C. and Ohio vow to reconvene later in the year and another conference, originally scheduled to be in San Diego, will go to a virtual platform.

But in her line of work, face-to-face interaction is crucial. “Attending and presenting at conferences is a large part of my work, so it’s difficult not having the opportunity to speak directly to potential clients at these cancelled or postponed events,” she said.

With workers hunkering down at home and upgrading technical connections, reaction to the virus could change how business is conducted county-wide. As people become more acclimated to telecommuting, for example, it might accelerate the trend to work and shop from home.

Lasting legacies from the virus will likely be the implementation of long-term continuity plans and new policies governing work-from-home added to employee handbooks, said Marsha Gordon, president and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester.

“This is a huge economic hit, there’s no doubt,” she said “But our business community is resilient and will get through this.”