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Local union hands out gift cards to members; BID sponsors ‘Downtown Dollars’

With many small businesses feeling the pandemic pinch, the idea of supporting “local” has never been more profound.

For the holidays, one local union has come together to show their support for businesses impacted by COVID-19. In lieu of its annual holiday party, the Riverhead Central School District Non-Instructional CSEA Unit #8792 chose to purchase gift cards from locally owned stores, restaurants and delis for its union employees.

“We didn’t go to the box stores,” CSEA president Ken Schuhmann said. “When COVID came, they were allowed to open. They weren’t losing like the mom-and-pop stores were.”

Mr. Schuhmann said 22 businesses were selected, including downtown restaurants like Jerry and the Mermaid, Star Confectionery, Sunny’s Grill and Digger’s. The $25 gift cards were distributed as a holiday gift to nearly 330 district employees who belong to the union.

Mr. Schuhmann, a school bus driver and custodian in the Riverhead Central School District, said each business he visited was grateful for the support.

The union’s holiday initiative coincides with a larger push to support businesses throughout the pandemic, largely through gift cards that have become a popular way to provide a boost in sales to cash-strapped businesses.

The Riverhead Business Improvement District has also rolled out a new gift card program just in time for the holiday season. “Downtown Dollars” is a new digital gift card that can be used at a growing list of downtown merchants who have signed up, from restaurants to breweries and even the Long Island Aquarium, Robert James Salon and Riverhead Vacuum and Sewing Center.

“It’s a way to market our downtown and give people a streamlined way to purchase gift cards,” BID executive director Kristy Verity said Monday, adding that 2020 has been a year for innovation and creativity for the organization.

“Every time Downtown Dollars are purchased and used, we know that funds are rotating through Riverhead and directly impacting our small businesses in a big way,” Ms. Verity said.

In April, the Riverhead Business Improvement District sponsored a double-impact fundraiser aimed to assist both hospital workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis and downtown restaurants struggling during a stay-at-home order.

Over $30,000 in gift cards were purchased from downtown eateries and raffled off to employees at Peconic Bay Medical Center.

“The generosity from the community was amazing,” Ms. Verity said.

Downtown businesses, she said, are all struggling at different levels and coping with different challenges while some, like the Suffolk Theater, have not yet been allowed to reopen.

“These are our neighbors and our family members,” Ms. Verity said of downtown business owners. “We’ve just been trying to help them out in any way we can and the community support has really been there.”

For more information on Downtown Dollars or to purchase a gift card, click here.