By Bill Sutton

Most sectors of the South Fork economy will rebound — although restaurants are sure to struggle — but the recovery from the COVID-19 shutdown will be neither swift or easy, a panel of business experts told Express News Group readers at a virtual Express/Press Sessions forum on May 7 via Zoom.

And anyone expecting a simple “flick of the switch” to bustling Main Streets and scrambling consumers on May 15 — the earliest date on which Governor Andrew Cuomo could relax stay-at-home orders and business restrictions when his New York Pause order is set to expire — is sure to be disappointed.

The forum — the first put on by the Express News Group since the pandemic took hold of the area in March — was held online via the Zoom videoconferencing platform and brought together a panel of South Fork business leaders. It was attended virtually by about 200 community members.

The forum, “Weathering the Storm: Key Tips for Bringing Back East End Business,” was intended to explore the future of business on the South Fork immediately following the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

Panelists included: Rocco A. Carriero, a private wealth advisor in Southampton; Kevin O’Connor, the chief executive officer of BNB Bank; Joe Campolo, the managing partner of Campolo, Middleton & McCormick, LLP; and John Tortorella, the owner of The Tortorella Group of Southampton.

Dr. Rajeev Fernando, an infectious disease specialist at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, led off the discussion with a brief overview of the medical considerations business owners face when getting back to business.

The 90-minute forum was moderated by Joseph P. Shaw, executive editor of the Express News Group.

The panelists were asked to discuss successful leadership practices during and after the crisis, safety in the workplace, federal financial aid packages for businesses, and key strategies for making a business successful as the crisis abates.

They all cautioned against expecting too much, too soon.

Successful business leaders, Mr. Campolo asserted, will be able to judge the situation correctly based on their past experiences and develop the way forward.

“The fundamental thing about leadership,” he said, “is that leaders aren’t born, they’re made. They’re made by the times that they exist in and how they rise to the occasion.

“We are seeing people all across society now who are leading thorough this pandemic, and I think the number one thing that a leader needs to do, whether it’s popular, unpopular or not, is they’ve got to accept reality. They’ve got to deal in facts. Accepting the reality of where we are right now is very difficult.”

“Everybody just wants this to go away,” he continued. “And everybody just wants this to end. … Reality is tough right now. … We have to accept this isn’t [going to be], May 15, the light switch is on, and all of a sudden it’s business as usual.”

Instead, he advised professionals to look at the macro environment everyone will be living in between now and the end of the year, and find ways to bring value to the new ecosystem being created by the crisis.

“What concerns me is the tone-deaf nature of what’s going on out there right now,” he said, “particularly on social media, where everyone’s, like, ‘Rah, rah, it’s all okay, we’re going to open on May 15 and we’re going to be fine.’

“We’re not. We’ve got to be smart. We’ve got to stick together. And we’ve got to bring value to a new ecosystem that we don’t even know what it looks like yet. That’s what I think we should be focused on at this point.”

Mr. Carriero offered a similar perspective, noting that the business owners he sees surviving the crisis have been aligning themselves with other successful professionals and advisors, pivoting to a changing market or new circumstances — such as restaurants that shifted to takeout meals — and positioning themselves for growth as the region begins to come out of the crisis.

“They’re looking at these dark days as not dark as in ‘I’m being buried,’ but dark as in ‘I’m being planted for future growth,’” he said.

Mr. O’Connor, whose bank has helped expedite about 4,000 federal stimulus loans to Long Island businesses amounting to over $950 million, noted that there are still funds available — the bank is currently processing about a dozen loans per day.

In fact, he was able to help one small business owner attending Thursday’s forum.

Michelle Del Giorno from Harbor Martial Arts in Sag Harbor asked Mr. O’Connor about federal Paycheck Protection Program loan regulations for small businesses without a payroll.

“I have probably one of the smallest businesses here in Sag Harbor,” she said. “I’ve been banking at BNB for 10 years. I do not have payroll. I did call the bank and spoke to the branch manager, and she told me I do not qualify for PPP because I don’t have payroll.”

Mr. O’Connor was reluctant to address Ms. Del Giorno’s concerns specifically in a public forum, but he did say that, generally, funding has become available in the second round of PPP loans for businesses without payrolls.

Later that day, he reported that he had spoken privately with Ms. Del Giorno, and that she was, in fact, eligible for a loan — and had begun the application process.

Mr. O’Connor agreed with the other panelists that recovery will be slow.

“This is not going to end May 15,” he said. “We’re in for a long slug to get this economy back into shape. I think the PPP program is just a little step. It’s money you should be using over the next two to three months.”

Pointing to successful business owners like Mr. Tortorella as an example, he agreed with Mr. Carriero that it is critical for proprietors to find and utilize knowledgeable advisors.

“The successful businesses that are out there surround themselves with people who give them advice and help them,” he said. “I always kid entrepreneurs that they’re not right all the time, so you need to have people around you who can tell you, and give you guidance.”

Deemed essential, Mr. Tortorella’s businesses did not need to shut down following the governor’s executive order in March, but he said during the forum that he and his 175 employees, across four divisions, have taken extraordinary measures to guarantee their safety and that of their clients.

“It’s not an easy task,” he said, noting that in the service division, they are dispatching one employee per service truck. “They have masks, they have sanitizers. Whatever materials they need, there’s one person in the warehouse at a time. Does that slow things down? Of course it does.”

Field managers are checking employees each morning to make sure they’re okay, he said. Only a single employee has contracted the virus, he noted.

“We’ve been extremely fortunate,” he said, “that we’ve had only one person — who’s well. He didn’t have to go to the hospital. He quarantined and he’s doing great. He should be back next week.”

Mr. Tortorella noted that, as the summer season gets underway and his crews focus more on pool maintenance, rather than service calls and pool openings, it will be much more challenging to maintain the one-person-per-truck policy. He’s hoping those restrictions will ease.

Dr. Fernando, however, earlier in the forum, speculated that even after businesses began to open back up, whether it’s May 15 or later, certain safety practices — like social distancing and wearing masks — might be here to stay, in the short term anyway.

“New York has been the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States,” he said. “People in New York, we’ve been in lockdown the longest. … We’re marching toward a May 15 reopening on a very small scale, a very stringent, small, scale.

“Based on my experience in epidemiology, I feel May 15 is a reasonable date to reopen — but I stress, once again, very stringent measures and still continuing aggressive social distancing, wearing a mask, and hand hygiene, of course. That’s the trifecta.”

Not wearing masks can be seen as being discourteous, he said, citing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I think we really have to follow these recommendations,” he said. “It’s really disrespectful to walk around potentially carrying an infection — whether you’re symptomatic or not — and pass it to other people. You always have to have a mask on.”

The panelists were eager to talk about the best business practices moving forward as the stalled economy begins to inch forward.

Forum attendee Harvey Feinberg asked the panel to comment on the idea that during the past two months of quarantine, nothing has significantly been done to “change the playing field” for businesses.

Mr. Campolo noted that the pandemic “caught us by such surprise that nobody really knew how to handle it.”

“The frenzy became PPP-based,” he said, “All of a sudden, PPP was the golden ticket. That’s what was going to lead you to salvation during this time.

“And an amazing thing happens when a business gets its PPP funds: You get funded, and all of a sudden you’re completely stressed out about, ‘Now, how do I spend it, and what do I do when this money runs out?’”

That’s what business owners are struggling with, he said. He compared it to being on a desert island, and a life raft washes up with enough food and water for a couple of months — but then what?

“What we need to start doing is, we need to get back to work,” he said. “We need to get back to work safely.

“Once this economy was turned off,” he added, “those dominoes will fall. GDP is going to fall. The debt is going to increase by trillions. The transportation systems are going to be shut down for a while until we figure it out. Travel, restaurants, hospitality, hotels, they’re all going to be shut down for a long time. Retail is going to be decimated. Those things are going to happen, and we need to be mitigating those economic challenges right now the same way we’re mitigating the health risks.”

Mr. Campolo stressed that a long-range macro plan was needed. “How are we surviving until the end of the year?” he asked. “We need to be mitigating those the same way we mitigated health, because if we don’t start increasing production right now, and we allow these dominoes to fall, we’re going to be decimated.”

Southampton Village Trustee Kimberly Allan asked from the virtual audience what local governments should be doing to help businesses weather the storm and move toward reopening.

Mr. Carriero said that local governments need “to communicate more effectively as to what options are available” and “check in with the business community about what they might need” and take those concerns to higher levels of government.

“The villages and the towns need to really take this into their own hands,” he said. “They can’t just wait for Governor Cuomo to come bail them out. Communities really need to take what’s going on into their own hands, develop their own strategic plan and start working those plans.”

Mr. Tortorella again added that he’d like to see local governments lobby to allow two people on a job site instead of only one, which is the current requirement.

“There’s a lot of frustration out there right now,” he said. “A lot of contractors are already beginning to break the rules. The local governments should be talking to Governor Cuomo to see what we can do. Something needs to be done to open the valve.”

Sag Harbor Village Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy, who attended the virtual forum, noted that her village has already been pushing to allow two people on a job site. “John, just to let you know, we have asked the governor repeatedly on the Suffolk County calls. All of Suffolk County has been begging for two people, at least,” she said. “We think it’s dangerous to have one construction person on any site.

“The other thing I’m very concerned about,” the mayor added, “is, every time you guys say the May 15 date — don’t get your hopes up, at least for out here.

“Suffok County is very bad. We are hoping things will loosen, construction being one of the first things, but a May 15 retail date and restaurant date is very, very unlikely for the East End.”

Ms. Allan noted that Southampton Village was sending a survey out to the business community to “get a pulse” and see what government could do to help businesses.

Further, she asked the panel what local actions the village could take to help out.

Mr. Campolo said that he has clients who will be facing the expiration of building permits while their contractors are under lockdown, and would like to see local governments extend those permits.

“If this goes on, your permit may expire,” he said. “Let’s not let that happen.”

Mr. Tortorella agreed, saying he hoped governments could extend those permits, and perhaps even speed up the review process for new applications, as the construction industry works to make up for a backlog of missed business during the quarantine once the economy reopens.

“As we get closer to possibly opening,” he said, “these permits, we’re going to need help in expediting them. Hopefully, it’s not going to take two months to get a simple building permit for a pool or for a tennis court or for something like that. That’s going to be huge.”

Construction aside, the panel acknowledged that much of the region’s economy was based on small retail shops, and a focus must be put on helping them to survive.

Mr. Shaw asked Mr. Compolo a question that several audience members had asked, that being how the community could ensure that the transient population, who may only be on the East End for a few weeks in the summer, and have “occasionally been notorious for bad behavior,” will follow social distancing rules in local retail stores.

“You can’t stop everyone from being a jerk,” Mr. Shaw said.

“We have to self-police,” Mr. Campolo answered. “After 9/11, it was if you saw something, say something. Post COVID is we have to self-police. … If we see jerks, we have to call them out as jerks. Because that’s what we do. We’re New Yorkers — we don’t care about calling people out. We have to do it, because we need them to survive.”

But Mr. Campolo stressed that local government has to put pressure on the state to get smaller retailers open before it’s too late.

“I represent small and medium businesses,” he said. “The small retailers are the backbone of Long Island and the East End, and they need to survive.

“But they’re not just going to magically survive. They need us to support them. We have to be supporting small businesses right now. We have to be utilizing takeout an curbside for these restaurants.

“We have to do it. It’s part of our patriotic duty to save these businesses.”

Originally published by Express News Group