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Business as (un)usual

More village shops ‘open’ as NYS began Phase 1

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Keside Ugoji and Dr. Michael Rosen are ready for business at Eye Gallery of Scarsdale.

With the Hartsdale Starbucks closed, David Fanning took to picking up his morning fix and walking his dog in Scarsdale Village about a month ago. On Tuesday, he noticed something different.

Though the village center wasn’t exactly buzzing with activity that morning, there were certainly more cars taking up parking spaces and more merchants had their doors cracked open. Local businesses previously deemed “nonessential” under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York State on PAUSE plan, were allowed to open in limited capacity starting May 26 as the Mid-Hudson region entered Phase 1 of reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think everyone is excited about stuff returning to a degree of normality, whatever that is,” Fanning said.

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For now, business will be the opposite of normal as many of the merchants are in the process of not only getting their stores prepared with social distancing and mask signage, getting ready to limit the number of people inside at any given time, supplying hand sanitizer, gloves and masks, and adding barriers at counters, but really recreating their business models.

“It is different for everybody, but everybody has to collectively have a positive attitude” said Ken Giddon, owner of Rothmans and co-chair of the Scarsdale Business Alliance. “It’s an opportunity to figure out what’s wrong and what’s right in your business. Because I have a business in the city, which worries me a lot more at this point, I am truly optimistic about the future of Scarsdale and the business community in Scarsdale.”

SBA co-chair Marcy Berman-Goldstein, owner of I Am More, was surprised to see shoppers Tuesday morning. A mother and daughter purchased a skirt, dress and hat literally right off the mannequins in the front window, used contactless payment and were on their way.

“That was actually astounding to me,” Berman-Goldstein said.

For Berman-Goldstein, the No. 1 goal for all Scarsdale Business Alliance members, of which there are around 100, is to “create a safe environment for people to do what they’re allowed to do” in stores. She believes that many people who have been “cooped up” are ready to get out and show their support for local businesses. For those not ready to get out, there are many distance shopping options like online, FaceTime and virtual shopping.

Zachys, as a wine and liquor store, was deemed an essential business and never had to close its doors, though there was a stretch where customers were not allowed inside. Zachys adapted to the situation in order to continue serving the community.

“We slowed down the process,” store manager Wilson Duran said. “We had less employees per shift and we started doing curbside pickups and offering local delivery to make sure the customers stay home safe and to keep our employees safe. It all started picking up. After a month when people started coming we put up the signs and the barriers for social distancing.”

Duran said Zachys had no illnesses, for which he was grateful. He was optimistic on the first day of Phase 1 as the other businesses in town were starting to rejoin the fold. “We hope for the best so everyone can open and we can try to go back to normal,” Duran said.

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Javier Guerras, Evan Maroney and Mike Thomas have kept busy at Zachys, which was deemed an essential business.

Dr. Michael Rosen spent the last eight weeks preparing for Tuesday by “completely revamping the entire” Eye Gallery of Scarsdale exam room with new equipment that keeps him 8 feet away from his patients for most of the exam, a major change from his old hands-on approach. He and his staff will also wear personal protective equipment.

He also had plexiglass barriers and UVC lights that disinfect the recirculated air installed and will allow no more than two parties in the shop at one time. Even the employees will stay 6 feet apart from each.

“We’ve changed everything,” Rosen said. “It’s a work in progress. The hard part is definitely controlling the flow. There are times when you have 10 people in here at one time. No more. Strict protocols now. There’s going to be a learning curve. We have to change our habits and people have to change their habits. It’s a whole new world.”

After closing his doors in mid-March, Rosen did some remote contact lens orders and saw two patients in emergency situations, but otherwise he was “essentially closed.”

Tuesday Rosen had several appointments scheduled throughout the day, but he was strict about masks, gloves and distance.

“Excited and nervous,” he said of reopening. “There’s a level of anxiety of wanting to protect everybody… Even this morning before we were even open people see a door open a crack and they’re walking in.”

Dr. Jay Rosen, who founded the business in 1979, will not return to his part-time role until it’s fully safe to join his son and their customers. Michael, who joined Dad in 1998, looks forward to that day: “I would love it. It’s great to have him here. Right now we have to protect him.”

Giddon has been in Scarsdale for 20 years, and also has locations in Bronxville and New York City. He’s been through 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and Superstorm Sandy. “This is in many ways the most difficult because the timeline is extended and the recovery is going to be in fits and starts,” he said. “We’re trying to think about what Rothmans 2.0 will look like post-pandemic. It’s going to be a different kind of business.”

While the store was closed, Giddon focused his efforts on building his online presence.

“I keep using the term ‘manifest your destiny,’” Giddon said during a UJA-Federation of New York Westchester Business and Professional Division virtual lunch last week. “Think about what you want your business to look like on the other side. We were a true brick and mortar store with not a lot of digital presence. I think digital was less than 1% of our business and we’ve been able to find some great people to help us with that. I’m shooting to take my digital business up to 10%. Also you use the time to think about what you’re doing well and what you can do better. That kind of clarity is really helpful in the long run.”

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Ken Giddon is ushering in a new era at Rothmans.

For those truly “brick and mortar” stores, Giddon said, “This is a period of shared pain.” He doesn’t expect much money to be made in 2020, but if the store owners, suppliers, landlords and banks all work together it could be good enough to get everyone back into a profit mode going forward.

Giddon also spent time during the closure learning PPP loan law and he and others are pushing to take the 75/25 split of payroll/other expenses and make that more balanced to benefit businesses now and in the future.

“It’s unfortunate that the PPP law put so much emphasis on payroll and didn’t really take into consideration the most important costs to us, which is rent, which is a huge cost and fixed,” Giddon said. “Every small business is probably going to have to spend a minimum of $20,000 between equipment and sanitizing and getting ready just to open.”

Scarsdale’s Lynn Bagliebter, executive vice president of Sterling National Bank, was also a UJA “Emerging Strong: Strategies for Your Business Post Pandemic” panelist. Working with existing clients has “been an overwhelming amount of work,” she said, noting that regulators “came out with very clear guidance” that the banks should partner with businesses to help them get through this with things like deferring payments or adding them to the end of the existing loans.

“It’s one case at a time,” Bagliebter said. “We have to understand the situation, but we have been working with the clients and giving the 90-day deferral. We do expect that people will be coming back to us because nobody really knows how long this is going to last.”

With the city much further away from a genuine reopening, the suburbs will benefit as far as real estate, both for commercial property and house sales and rentals. “If I were thinking about business right now I would be renting space in Scarsdale if I didn’t have it already,” Giddon said. “It’s a home run in the long run.”

UJA panelist Andrew Weisz, executive vice president of commercial property manager RPW Group, also believes that Westchester will benefit from businesses migrating north.

“COVID thrives on density and that’s really the main reason why New York City got hit so hard,” Weisz said. “There’s transportational density between subways and trains and also the large office buildings with people coming in and out all day long. I think Westchester will see a flurry of activity.”

While most people have been relegated to working from home and for some it has been a boost, Weisz believes that office space is still an integral part of business, even if it is used in different ways going forward.

“There’s no doubt [working from home is] going to be an element of the work force going forward,” Weisz said. “But I strongly believe that the workplace is crucial. You cannot mentor, you cannot lead people over Zoom. There’s only so much you can do over the internet. You need a place to congregate and to really push each other to do their best. I think the office is here to stay.”

SBA is working with village officials and Westchester County Executive George Latimer to change how business is done in the village so as not to overcrowd stores and keep shoppers spread out. One idea is allowing tables and racks that are not intrusive to pedestrians on the sidewalks in front of storefronts. Another is to close off some streets on weekends to allow for more outdoor shopping opportunities.

“During this closure time we’ve looked at it as an opportunity to really hit that reset button to reemerge in a completely different way collaboratively,” Berman-Goldstein said, adding, “Long term I think the village is going to come out stronger.”

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Marcy Berman-Goldstein of I Am More puts on a mask during business hours. Customers are also required to wear masks.

Berman-Goldstein believes that each of the four phases — they will last a minimum of two weeks each — will bring out more shoppers.

“I’m optimistic that Scarsdale is going to emerge strong,” she said. “That doesn’t mean in six months from now or January that you’re not going to have a couple of businesses that do shut down, but I have faith in our community that they really want to see each of our businesses survive and I think you’re going to see people coming out.”

With Zachys leading the charge with a large wine donation, and help from 25 SBA businesses who donated $4,000 worth of items, Scarsdale’s merchants made sure White Plains Hospital was celebrated during National Nurses Week.

Many local businesses have been generous throughout the years in giving back to the community.

“It would be helpful if the residents remember how important small businesses and local businesses are,” Giddon said. “They’re the ones out there who have their names on all your Little League jerseys and basketball teams. The village would not be the same if those businesses aren’t there, so if you take the little extra effort to wait in a line or make an appointment or buy something online locally it would go a long way to keeping the heart and soul of the village of Scarsdale intact.”

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Parkway Cafe remains open for pickup. Andrew Cucolo is ready to take your order as restaurants eagerly await Phase 3.

Though it has evolved over the years, Scarsdale’s sidewalk sale is still one of the most anticipated events of late July in the downtown. The three-day event attracts shoppers and some stores have their biggest month of the year. While most shops don’t rely on the sidewalk sale, it is a boost and with stores closed all spring and being phased in now through the summer, the sidewalk sale could be expanded to as many as two weeks and also to all the different shopping hubs in Scarsdale.

“It’s going to be critical to retailers this year,” Berman-Goldstein said. “We need to liquidate items for cash since we’ve been shut down for so long.”

Just days before Phase 1 began, New York State Assemblymember Amy Paulin, who represents Scarsdale, said at a Scarsdale Forum virtual meeting, “Our vibrant little village is like a ghost town.”

Everyone will be happy to know the village is starting to regain its pulse.

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