With a new year ahead and coronavirus vaccines rolling out to more qualified individuals, Bellmore and Merrick’s business owners said they are starting to feel optimistic about the future, while remaining diligent in following state-mandated safety protocols.
But the presence of “for sale,” “for rent” and “space available” signs in storefront windows around the community is hard to ignore. This reporter counted more than 20 vacancies on Merrick Road between Bellmore and Merrick, and in downtown Merrick there were 12 empty storefronts interspersed along Merrick Avenue. In Bellmore Village, roughly 10 vacancies were found on and around Bedford Avenue, and the Merrick Commons and Bellmore Plaza shopping centers each had a handful of vacancies, as well.
It’s something local business owner Jim Spohrer has noticed, too. As president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Bellmores, he said nine of his members went out of business as a result of the pandemic.
“Seeing empty storefronts is terrible because these smaller businesses keep the economy going,” he said. “Being an essential business, it’s been OK, but no matter what town you live in you really need to support your local guys.”
Julie Marchesella, a past president of the Merrick Chamber of Commerce, has owned Queen of Hearts in town for nearly 30 years. She said while the number of for-rent signs in the area is unfortunate, some landlords are renegotiating leases with store owners to cut them some slack until the pandemic subsides.
At the store, “I find things are moving a little,” she said. “People who moved their weddings into 2021 are hopeful that they will happen, and ladies are starting to come out to take a look. At this point we’ve got to think positive.”
At III View Design and Construction Inc., in Bellmore, owner Patricia Salcedo is once again taking walk-in customers, completing interior design projects and scheduling new clients for masked consultations. The pandemic initially halted the store’s services, which prompted Salcedo to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. She waited three months to receive the funds.
Additionally, many of the manufacturers that III View patronizes were affected by the pandemic early on. “All facets of the supply chain were impacted, and we felt it,” Salcedo said. “It slowed everything down.”
In recent months, Salcedo has helped clients convert their spare rooms into multifunctional office spaces because they are working from home. “People spent so much time in their homes and know the changes they want and need to make,” she explained. “Customers are tired of staring at screens, scrolling the internet, trying to figure out on their own what will work in their spaces. They crave the personal touch that III View Design is known for.”
At Maximum Fitness in Merrick, owner Scott Kaplan is staggering clients throughout the day, even if it comes at a cost to the business. The studio has seen a 20 percent increase in gym-goers since reopening on Sept. 1, according to Kaplan, who also stressed the space’s cleanliness. He now sees about half the number of clients that he did previously.
“I don’t want people worrying when they walk in — I want them to focus on the exercise,” he said. “Knock wood, we haven’t had any cases.”
Two of Maximum’s trainers, who are also front-line workers, have already received the vaccine, Kaplan said. He hopes that as more people are inoculated, that will encourage them to return to patronizing local businesses.
Along with the fitness industry, restaurants have also taken a hard hit during the pandemic, and are regulated by a number of state mandates, such as a recent 10 p.m. curfew. Paul Telese, co-owner of Elisa’s Ristorante in North Bellmore, has also adjusted to hosting diners outside, even during the winter, but renting tents and heaters costs money, he said.
“When you lose the big parties, catering and late night, that becomes a big hit,” he explained. “We’re struggling through, made cutbacks here and there . . . but we keep on trucking.”
Telese looks forward to the day when he can have patrons at the restaurant as he did before the pandemic, adding that the vaccine could aid in having that vision realized. Spohrer and Marchesella agreed, but also reinforced the importance of shopping locally.
“There’ll be a time soon when all this gets under control, and we’ll want our neighborhood stores, services and restaurants to be there for us,” Salcedo said. “Let’s try to keep them afloat so that can happen.”