Editorial: This is now the time to reimagine our hamlets

We are moving, step by step, toward reopening the North Fork economy to some degree. It is not yet around the corner, but as reopening moves closer, hundreds of businesses in Riverhead and Southold will have to reimagine what they do and how they’ll do it in a post-pandemic reality. 

This is assuming that, this summer and into the fall, there will actually be a post-pandemic landscape. There will certainly be something — but what? By some federal estimates, the death toll will continue to rise through August and could reach 137,000 deaths nationwide. 

Consider that the Vietnam War cost 58,220 American lives; this week in America, the death toll for COVID-19 rose to over 80,000. And this is in just over two months. During the four years Americans fought in World War II, from December 1941 to August 1945, 416,000 American service members died.

America in the 1940s and today seem like two different countries. During World War II, America united behind the cause of defeating fascism. Now, in this viral war, we protest and shout at each other and sling assault weapons over our shoulders to express our extreme contempt for what the government is doing. We don’t just disagree with people; we are completely disgusted by them.

When experts we have interviewed say North Fork businesses must reinvent themselves if they are to survive this pandemic, they are saying they won’t and can’t go back to where they were before. Entrepreneurs will have to be creative and find new models. These businesses will have to find a new gear to run on or they will die.

For example, some in Greenport propose turning Front Street into a pedestrian walkway so restaurants can set up tables in the street and thus attract customers while maintaining social distancing. Front Street is part of Route 25, a state highway. How long will the state Department of Transportation take to consider this and what will they decide? Meanwhile, as the wheels of government slowly turn, more and more businesses will simply wither away. 

Downtown Riverhead has been trying for several years to model itself after the Village of Patchogue, with downtown apartments, a walkable business district, busy restaurants and a convenient train station for commuters. Looking at this now, it’s hard to see widespread construction continuing downtown at the same pace when the economy restarts.

This week we interviewed Kevin O’Connor, president and CEO of BNB Bank. In just weeks, his bank has made approximately 4,000 small business loans, totaling nearly $1 billion, under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, including dozens to operations on the North Fork and in Greenport Village.

While Mr. O’Connor considers himself an optimist about the future of the East End, an area he loves, his message is clear: The business community must reimagine itself in order to move forward. There is no way around that.

“There has to be a rethinking of what downtowns will look like,” he said. 

He said business owners must talk to their landlords about reducing rents; restaurants must be able to attract customers while still maintaining distance; and governments should think seriously about allowing these businesses to forgo collecting sales taxes, at least for a certain grace period.

“I want to be optimistic,” Mr. O’Connor said. “I love the beauty of both forks. I lived in Southold for a number of years. I think Greenport is an amazing community that is a real attraction and you want it to survive. You want to see bands playing by the carousel.”

He said business owners, business leaders and our politicians must work together to find solutions. But he was crystal clear on this key point: “It’s now incumbent on businesses to reinvent themselves.”

“How do we allow creativity?” he asked, noting that it takes real leadership. “We are watching our leaders on TV every day. They are making decisions. Not every one is right. I think it is going to take business leaders and business owners and the political factions to understand that the survival of the businesses is on the line. No one wants to go back to boarded-up downtowns.”