With Long Island still on pause, some North Fork businesses are unlocking their doors anyway

Even as the NY on Pause shutdown continues for Long Island, some North Fork businesses are quietly beginning to open back up.

In some instances, it’s because they believe they have been deemed essential. In other cases, it’s standing up for what they believe is right.

So far, these businesses are doing so without penalty.

Times Review Media Group is covering the reopening with a new Closer Look podcast it’s calling The Reopen. Episode 1 is now streaming.

Officials in both Southold and Riverhead towns said they are receiving and responding to complaints about businesses that have reopened prior to state and county officials declaring an end to the shutdown, but the outreach to date has been limited to simply bringing these businesses into compliance.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said three downtown businesses were brought into compliance this week after police received complaints about them operating outside of current state guidelines. The enforcement has included sending sector cars to the business. He said complaints mostly involve eateries serving takeout and still allowing customers to eat onsite.

“I think it’s mostly [the business owners] not understanding the risk,” the chief said. “Or maybe not knowing there is risk.”

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said his department hasn’t been receiving many complaints about businesses operating outside of the shutdown. Supervisor Scott Russell added that the town received complaints about a business in Southold village that had to be brought into compliance last week.

“People are getting desperate and I can understand their wanting to get up and running, but there is an executive order in place and we have no choice but to require that owners close if they are prohibited by the order,” Mr. Russell said.

The supervisor added that, in some instances, town residents are seeing businesses — mostly builders and landscapers — they believe are violating the governor’s order based on the way they are interpreting what the state has said, but they’re not always correct. A look at police reports issued this month shows at least one kitchen restoration that had to be stopped in Mattituck after the contractor was notified he was not in compliance with state regulations.

Mr. Russell said he believes the governor could apply “more common sense” to what has been ordered by “allowing low risk businesses to open.”

“Conditions can be put in place to ensure public health,” the supervisor said.

Asked what he would tell a business owner who wants to open back up knowing that so far penalties haven’t been issued, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said, “we want to get to the point where we are reopening, we want to get to the first phase, we understand the pain the [economic] devastation.”

“I’m very much in favor of reopening,” the county executive continues. “But we have to reopen the right way and in a safe way.”

He also said he’d point out that two dozen people with COVID-19 had died in Suffolk County in the past 24 hours.

On Saturday, The News-Review visited several North Fork businesses that reopened this week. In each instance, the owner or employees stated, either directly to a reporter or on social media, that they were back in business because they believed it was time to reopen regardless of what the state had said or because they had received guidance that they could reopen. Those businesses included a beauty salon, a unisex haircutter, a clothing retailer and a smoke shop. Each one had reopened since Wednesday.

At each location, precautions were being taken by requiring customers to wear masks or by limiting access to appointment only. Employees could be seen wearing personal protective equipment at each place. The News-Review has declined to name these businesses because none of them are facing any penalties at this time. The towns did not name any businesses they have issued warnings to.

At one store an employee had a printout of an email on hand that he was told by the owner to show if police arrived. He said it contained an opinion from a state official that he could open back up. So they unlocked the doors for the first time in nearly two months Friday.

The chorus of discontent over the governor’s shutdown order has grown louder in recent days. A reopening rally in Commack that was covered by News 12 gained national attention Friday when a video shared on Twitter by the reporter covering it for the local television news station was retweeted by President Donald Trump, who quoted a person in the video who told the reporter “fake news is not essential.” The president then retweeted the video a second time calling the protestors “good people.” Earlier Friday, journalist Katie Couric tweeted words of encouragement at the reporter, Kevin Vesey.

So far no such rallies have been held on the North Fork.

County officials have said that Long Island is at least nine days away from beginning phase one of its reopening, which would be limited primarily to construction and manufacturing jobs, but does expand retail uses a bit by allowing curbside pickups at some retail shops, including clothing stores, florists and electronics businesses.

State and county officials have given no specific date for phase one here as Suffolk and Nassau counties continue to work toward meeting state criteria to reopen. It has also not yet been decided how much time must pass before Long Island can move on to phase two. So far five upstate regions have been allowed to begin to reopen.