North Fork business community innovates and unites for good in uncertain times

The massive parking lots at Riverhead’s Tanger Outlets were empty on a beautiful afternoon Saturday. Security turned away any drivers who came in, unaware of the closure.

Nearby shopping centers on Route 58 were also closed, as well as major retailers like Best Buy and Bed Bath and Beyond.

Farther east, along Main Road in Southold Sunday, merchants hung “closed” signs in their windows. A man stood outside Magic Fountain in Mattituck, in the final hours before the shop was forced to close. He wasn’t in the usual line, bustling with families yearning for a sugar cone with black cherry bourbon ice cream and sprinkles. He was practicing appropriate social distancing at a time when the focus is on stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Still, traffic hummed across the North Fork, along Routes 58 and 25, as people proceeded to destinations like Costco and grocery stores, stocking up as they prepared for life in prolonged quarantine.

Most other shops had already closed or were preparing to as part of a mandatory shutdown of non-essential businesses ordered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“You get nervous for your employees,” said Debbie Schade of Special Effects Salon and Tea in Greenport. “It is hard, because we are getting a huge chunk of our business starting in the spring to the fall for weddings.”

Ms. Schade decided to close last Monday, March 16, three days before the governor ordered all salons and barber shops to close. But her business doubles as a tea shop, so they’ve gotten creative by delivering scones and tea to keep some revenue coming in.

Bill Hallock at Southold Barber Shop doesn’t have such an option. Asked about an hour after the governor’s order if he was nervous about what the future holds, he expressed concern for businesses like his across the state.

“Of course, it’s how we live,” he said. “It just seems like they are overdoing it. They think everything is the city. What about the guy upstate? He might do six haircuts a day. He’s going to close?”

A silver lining emerging over the past two weeks is how businesses have rallied together. Collaborations have started between businesses to offer bottles of local wine with dinner orders, beer and doughnut combos and other creative partnerships to keep revenue flowing in as the greater economy suffers. 

Wendy Zuhoski, owner of Wendy’s Deli in Mattituck, has used her active Facebook page to spread the word about what other businesses are doing and to promote places you might think would be competitors.

“It makes me feel better to support others and share what they are doing,” she said, admitting that she’s felt some guilt from staying busy. “It’s scary that there is no end in sight.”

Ms. Zuhoski also shipped free lunches Monday to staff at Peconic Bay Medical Center, Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital and San Simeon by the Sound.

After making the tough decision to close his doors March 16, Jonathan Perkins, owner of Cooperage Inn in Baiting Hollow, and his wife, Rene, got an email from PBMC asking if they would be available to feed health care workers from the COVID-19 team.

“They are limited on what they can eat because everything is shut down there, and they just can’t keep going to Taco Bell,” Mr. Perkins said. “So I said, ‘I’m going to provide you nice meals indefinitely, and I’m not going to charge you.’ ”

He’s been sending 30 lunches a day and has even reopened for takeout, bringing some of his staff back to work. 

At CJ’s in Mattituck, owners Chris and Joanne Richards sent 130 free meals to Community Action Southold Town Friday morning. 

“Now, I’m doing 110 turkey dinners, fresh mashed potatoes, cranberries,” Chris said later that day. “I’m going to deliver them there tomorrow morning. Sunday morning, I’m going to do the same thing.”

Generosity was also on display at Twin Stills Moonshine in Riverhead, where owner Joe Cunha received federal approvals to make hand sanitizer, which he handed out to the community for free Saturday. Within an hour of opening, he’d given away all the bottles he made but was still encouraging North Fork residents to bring their own bottles for refills and was planning to make even more.

“As much as I can make and bottle, I will try to get as much out there as possible,” Mr. Cunha said.