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New Businesses Emerge Even As Pandemic Poses Challenges

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L. to R.: Michael DePietro, chairman & CEO of Acoustik Attak, Inc. (Photo by Darlene Santiago DePietro) and Pulse fitness founder Julie Dermer. (Photo by Matteo Photography)

Michael DePietro played a few riffs on his Gibson guitar one recent afternoon as the sound coursed through a Supro Black Magick reverb amp, first with the help of a traditional pick and then with a premium pick his company makes.

“These picks brighten the tone that you get,” DePietro, a 46-year-old Manhasset resident, said. “And they add a little percussive effect.”

DePietro, CEO of Karate Combat, a professional sports league, and Mark Labbe, the company’s chief technology officer, joined forces during the pandemic to launch Acoustik Attak, a new company that makes ridged, not flat, guitar picks.

“It really brings this brightness and this aura to my reverb amp when I play on my Gibson,” DePietro said. “If you can change the tone at your fingertips, that’s when the art gets conveyed in the music.”

While the pandemic may be a tough time for longstanding businesses and startups, DePietro is among a plethora of entrepreneurs who started businesses even as Covid-19 complicated nearly everything.

Julie Dermer, a Manhattan and East Hampton resident, started her own virtual workout company known as Pulse amid the pandemic after SoulCycle, where she is an instructor, temporarily closed down.

“I didn’t intend for it to be a business,” said Dermer, known as Julie D to those who take her personal training classes. “I wanted a way to stay connected to my community. I got onto Instagram and sprang into action.”

Dermer initially taught half-hour exercise classes with a dish towel and bottles for weights, but her virtual workouts have taken off with about 200 members in addition to classes for companies, she says.

“I’m doing it for a few corporations through their HR departments as health and wellness for their employees,” said Dermer, who offers classes four days a week on Zoom as well as private, in-person lessons and classes for special occasions. 

Entrepreneurs have been starting up and expanding through franchises, seeking to start their own businesses by tapping into existing brands.

Josh York, CEO of GYMGUYZ, an in-home personal training company, said his company has been growing rapidly during the pandemic as franchisees start up and clients seek training in their homes.

“In the last eight months, it’s been pretty crazy,” York, based in Plainview, said. “We are a mobile operation. There’s no brick and mortar.”

York said he recently got 45 franchise leads from an appearance on CNBC for his company, which sells virtual training and in-home training sessions.

“People sampled our service throughout the pandemic,” York said. “The pandemic created new consumer behavior. The whole world is based on convenience.”

While many startups provide online services, Acoustik Attak used technology to get started, like a high-tech version of a garage band. Labbe made the first picks with a 3D printer, before they refined designs and found a manufacturer. 

Acoustik Attak, DePietro said, remains a “100 percent virtual company” with 12 employees in home offices.

“The guitar market grew 17 percent during Covid,” DePietro said, explaining one reason this may be the right time for his company to launch and grow. “People were staying home and picking up a new instrument.”

Companies are expanding online and via brick and mortar. GYMGUYZ recently got into Costco, which sells its virtual training sessions. 

“It’s not easy to get into Costco,” York said. “Persistence, that’s it.”

Brick-and-mortar businesses are launching as well now that the economy is reopening.  High Score Pinball Arcade opened in April at the Westfield South Shore mall in Bay Shore with more than 40 pinball machines.

And MagicBox by SHOWFIELDS, a revolving retail experience with brands and communities which bills itself as “the most interesting store in the world,” opened at the Roosevelt Field mall, in March.

Traditional retail is beginning to rebound, but Dermer believes virtual services, such as physical training, which lets people work out at home, will remain in fashion long after the pandemic abates.

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What Pot Legalization Will Mean For the Workplace

pot legalization
A man rolls a hybrid strain joint of cannabis to smoke at his home in New York, U.S. April 1, 2021. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill on Wednesday to legalize adult use of marijuana, making it the 15th U.S. state to allow recreational use of the drug. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

New York State on March 31 with one stroke of the governor’s pen ended the prohibition of recreational marijuana for adults. It also opened the door to questions about what employers can and can’t do.

The new law, which limits legal possession to up to 3 ounces of cannabis and 24 grams of cannabis concentrate, outlines basic things that are off limits, although the specifics aren’t yet set. 

“Unlawful discrimination will be prohibited and workplace safety protections will be implemented,” the law says in a section addressing employers.

The legislation said that because of “broken, unjust, and outdated“ policies, “New York has become the marijuana arrest capital of the country, with nearly 800,000 marijuana arrests and summonses.” About 60 million Americans lived in states where adult-use cannabis is legal, before the legislation passed.

The law lifts the state’s ban on recreational marijuana for those 21 and older, establishes the Office of Cannabis Management, expands the state’s existing medical marijuana program and establishes a licensing system for producers, distributors, and retailers.

It also creates a program “encouraging individuals disproportionately impacted by cannabis enforcement” to participate in the industry, aiming for half of licenses to go to minority or woman-owned businesses, small farms facing difficulties, and disabled veterans.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the rules “comprehensive reforms” that would “address and balance the social equity, safety and economic impacts of legal adult-use cannabis.” But if marijuana is legal for adults, what is legal for employers to do?

“There are numerous employment-related implications to the law, starting from pre-employment drug testing,” said Avrohom Gefen, a partner at Vishnick McGovern Milizio LLP’s Employment Law, Commercial Litigation, and Alternative Dispute Resolution Practices. “If you’re going to administer pre-employment drug tests, you’ll likely get tripped up.”

New York City’s Human Rights law already bans pre-employment marijuana testing, and the new law is expected to essentially extend that prohibition.

“Many handbooks have a drug-testing policy,” Gefen said. “A typical panel of drugs would include cannabis. We’re advising employers to revise that.”

He added that companies can prohibit employees from using marijuana in the office and coming to work under the influence.

Marijuana use remains prohibited under federal law, a policy which can come into play in some ways. State law says employers can’t be penalized for following federal guidelines, such as those for pilots, truck drivers, train operators, first responders and police officers.

“You can test them even without observing any articulable symptoms pre-employment and during employment,” Gefen said.

Cities, towns, and villages can opt out of allowing “adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries or on-site consumption licenses,” but cannot “opt out of adult-use legalization.”

The state Department of Health has been instructed to study detection of cannabis-impaired driving and is expected to “approve and certify a test for the presence of cannabis in drivers.” You’re still not allowed to use marijuana while driving.

“With alcohol, there are bright-line rules,” Gefen said, noting the need for standards. “If you’re over a certain legal limit, you’re considered intoxicated.”

The state plans to set up a program for homegrown marijuana that will allow up to three mature plants and three immature plants for adults over 21 and six mature plants and six immature plants maximum per household.

And it created “automatic expungement or resentencing” for anyone with a previous marijuana conviction that would “now be legal under the law.”

“I don’t think there’s a strong movement to legalize pot at the federal level,” Gefen said. “You have individual states taking action. And the federal government is not taking strong action against it.”

The Shinnecock Indian Nation plans to cultivate marijuana on its reservation in Southampton now that recreational use is legal, as the new rules create some jobs.

“Ultimately, you’ll have big money behind it,” Gefen said of an industry that could employ thousands in the state legally. “As it becomes more acceptable and prevalent, you’re going to see institutional money behind businesses.”

Legalization would bring taxation, projected to reach $350 million annually, and potentially create 30,000 to 60,000 jobs.

“The governor sees tax dollars running to other states, such as New Jersey, which legalized it previous to this,” Gefen said. “They see people crossing over the border to buy marijuana legally. They would lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue each year.”

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Adventureland President Talks Reopening After More Than One Year

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Adventureland president and co-owner Steven Gentile on the carousel at Adventureland in Farmingdale.

Steven Gentile, president and co-owner of L.I. Adventureland, an amusement park on Long Island, talked about making it through the pandemic, reopening, and its newest ride.

How did you adjust to the pandemic? The pandemic unfortunately kept us closed during the 2020 season, even though on July 8, we were prepared for the fourth phase of reopening. They ended up excluding the amusement industry from that fourth phase. We were prepared and ready to go.

What did you do? We pivoted out of that closure to do some movies and concerts during the summer of 2020. It was helpful for us to keep us relevant on Long Island. I feel that Long island people were supporting our movies, and concerts gave us a chance to support them. 

What did you do while closed? We kept our full-time staff employed throughout the pandemic. That enabled us to do a lot of painting, fixing, adjusting different things. We got a new ride this year called “The Sports Tower” from Italy. It’s a 60-foot sports tower that gives you an aerial view of Adventureland and Farmingdale.  You spin in your sports-themed gondola. At nighttime, the lights on the ride give you a beautiful light show.

When did you reopen? We got the green light to open up the amusement industry April 10, so April 10, Saturday, was our first day of operation. We had all the social protocols in place. The park is open at 33 percent. We found ourselves to have a strong reservations system. We had strong results.

How do you manage people there? All purchases must be done off our website, so we can have staggered entry, entering the park. Each hour we allow a certain number of people to sign up and enter the park through our online portal. We don’t want a cluster at the ticket booth or waiting online.

Are all the rides open? All the rides are open. The rides are running at a capacity of 33 percent. You can push some to 50 percent because they are spaced out in a safe way. Most of the rides are socially distanced already. 

What’s the atmosphere like? Fantastic. I think it’s pent-up fun people were not able to experience over the past year. They could take advantage of other things to do on Long Island. Adventureland is one of those things to hit once or twice during the summer. 

Who’s going? We’re getting a lot of parents with their kids and quite a few 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds. It’s mostly a family crowd. The park is open Saturdays and Sundays through Memorial Day. After Memorial Day, our hours broaden. We’ll be open seven days a week by the end of June when schools let out.

Are you making any other changes?  We’re bringing in more food items. We brought in beer, wine, and seltzer for the first time in 25 years. It’s being well received and well respected. Parents are taking advantage of that in a nice way. 

How did you handle things financially? We took advantage of the PPP and the SBA’s  COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). The PPP should be forgiven since we didn’t open and lost at least 95 percent of our income from the previous year. The EIDL loans have to be paid back. We’re hoping our industry, the amusement park industry, will be included in any grants out there to be offered, primarily the SVOG Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. Grants are coming down from New York State.

What’s the status of your foundation? Last year, the pandemic caused us to cancel our foundation’s largest fundraising event for Adventureland’s Helping Hands Foundation, created in 2015 after my dad, Tony Gentile, passed away in 2013. Now our VIP event will be held Friday, Sept. 10. It’s primarily a fundraiser for the foundation’s scholarship fund. We incorporated my mom Vivian into that scholarship. It’s the Tony and Vivian Scholarship fund.

How does the upcoming year look?  When you operate at 33 percent, that means you’re operating at 33 percent income. We’re happy that we’re open and able to generate some income. We’re happy for ourselves and our guests, our fans, the public. We get to see them and they get to see us and enjoy the park. We need to be safe and practice the proper protocols, but we need the powers that be to expand our 33 percent to get to a higher percentage. We need to be included in grants.

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Tritec Real Estate’s Bob Coughlan Reimagines Downtowns on Long Island

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Bob Coughlan is a leader in mixed-use development on LI.

We talked with Bob Coughlan, a principal at Tritec Real Estate Co., based in Setauket, about how the company he and his brother Jim founded 35 years ago is developing projects in Long Island’s downtowns and elsewhere.

Tell me how and why the company is rebranding. It’s to reflect what we’ve been doing as an organization for over 15 years and focusing on developing multifamily and mixed-use projects in downtown, walkable communities where we can help revitalize the community.

Can you give one example of a project you’ve done? New Village in Patchogue is one of the early if not first downtown revitalizations efforts on Long Island. We successfully built 291 residential units, 45,000 square feet of retail, and 17,000 square feet of office space.

How do you develop multiuse, since it has so many elements? It does, but it reflects the character and fabric of the areas we’re developing. Over the last decades, Long Island, being the first suburb, broke down uses into a Euclidean planning process. They separated office and industrial space. Retail was in another area. If you go back in time, communities were built up with a mix of various uses within walking distance of each other. People live, work, play within a radius they could walk to.

Can you tell me projects you’re involved with as we speak, or upcoming? We have a number of them. Lindenhurst. The Wel with just one L. We’re in the process of finishing a residential multifamily apartment project with 260 residential units that will be about two city blocks from Wellwood Avenue. It opens in early April.

How is demand for that project? Over 1,000 people expressed an interest in renting space prior to our opening in April. A good number of people will sign leases at some point in April or May. That project and the other projects we’re focused on are catalysts for economic development. Since we started construction, over 17 new restaurants signed leases on Wellwood Avenue in Lindenhurst.

What’s the status of your Ronkonkoma development? We recently completed Alston Station Square at Ronkonkoma Train Station, a 489-unit multifamily residential rental project. It’s proximate to the train station, but it’s part of a larger project, 53 acres at the Ronkonkoma Train Station. Our leasing has been going extremely well throughout Covid. Over 320 of those units have been leased. We’re starting construction in a couple of weeks in Ronkonkoma on our second phase, the core of our downtown at the train station. We’re building 388 residential units and 73,000 square feet of retail space and 15,000 square feet of office space. That will be the hub of that community.

Any breaking news with big projects to come? We’re under contract to buy Touro College’s Bay Shore campus. We’re looking to break ground in June on 418 residential units across from the train station one block from Main Street. It’s walkable from the ferries going to Fire Island, to South Shore Hospital.

How many construction jobs are these projects creating? The Ronkonkoma project overall will be over 10,000 construction jobs. Bay Shore is 900 jobs. The Wel is about 600 jobs. They are tremendous job generators and great places for people to live.

Did you shut down or were you impacted by the pandemic? During the early part of the pandemic, like everybody else, we were closed down for a couple of months before our construction teams could go back on-site. Like many others, we had to figure out what health and safety protocols to put in place. When we were allowed to go back to work, our jobs opened up. We lost some time, but were able to make up time on those projects. Many of our office workers are still working remotely from home.

Why and what are you doing in Northern Virginia? My brother Dan runs our Washington, D.C. operation. He is developing a large mixed-use project in Northern Virginia with multifamily rentals, condominiums, townhouses, retail, museums, a data center, and a school with soccer fields. We expanded to that area. It’s also one of the better real estate markets in the country.

How are your projects being impacted by people getting vaccinated? I’m not sure yet how that’s going to play out. During Covid, we had a significant number of people moving out of New York City, renting space in our projects. People moving out of the city not only rented space in our projects, they bought homes. The sellers also rented apartments in our projects.

What do you see happening next? I see more of the same. Before the pandemic, there was a tremendous need for multifamily housing on Long Island. The pandemic has heightened that need. We’re continuing to receive tremendous demand for multifamily, particularly within walkable communities near mass transportation.

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Long Island’s Solar Energy Market Heats Up As Technology Advances

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Photovoltaic panels are best erected on south-facing rooftops, experts say. (Getty Images)

Tesla electric vehicles aren’t just appearing on the roads. They’re also showing up nationwide on roofs. Don’t worry: That’s where these are designed to be. 

After shaking up the automobile industry and space travel, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has set his sights on the sun. Since the company’s 2016 acquisition of Solar City, a solar power developer and installer, Musk has been revolutionizing solar roofs. The company is making solar shingles that seamlessly cover roofs rather than positioning traditional panels, creating a technological tapestry.

“He’s going for the gold,” says Scott Maskin, CEO of Ronkonkoma-based SUNation Solar Systems, gearing up for its first Tesla solar shingle project on Long Island.  “He wants to own the entire house. The Tesla vision is that all homes will have Tesla solar shingles, electric vehicle chargers with a Tesla car, and a Tesla Powerwall energy storage system.”

While Tesla’s solar shingles are still fairly rare, solar energy has come a long way, and has come of age on Long Island.

“Long Island leads the state on solar arrays,” Renewable Energy Long Island Executive Director Gordian Raacke says. “We have high electric rates and a lot of sunshine, both of which make solar a good investment.”

In some ways, solar has been the victim of its own success. There haven’t been New York State Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) residential solar rebates offered through Public Service Electric and Gas (PSEG) Long Island for simple rooftop solar on Long Island for five years.

“The idea was to assist people adopting solar and to kickstart the industry,” Maskin says, noting rebates remain in New York City. “The industry passed the kickstart mark.”

New York State still has a 25 percent tax credit up to $5,000 and a 26 percent federal investment tax credit in place.

“It was a huge deal,” Maskin says of the decision not to lower the credit for now. “We were expecting it to go down.”

Solar energy may seem like an ancient idea, but rooftop solar is actually a fairly recent innovation, really starting in the late 1990s.

“There were only a handful of grid-connected solar electric systems on Long Island,” Raacke says. “Today there are more than 50,000.”

The gross cost for an average system of about 8,000 watts, typically for $2,000 annual bills, is $22,00 to $30,000, but credits can significantly reduce that, Maskin says.

There are options to finance solar power, which typically has a return on investment of seven years. It’s possible to offset additional costs by paying for the power on your electric bill through a NYSERDA loan.

“I believe the best thing for a consumer is to own the solar system,” Maskin says, noting that some may prefer leasing if they can’t take advantage of tax credits.

The solar industry, unlike much construction, was declared nonessential during the pandemic, shutting down from March to June. The industry has since been ramping up amid rising residential bills.

“We have people who have been home and seen their electric bills skyrocket,” Maskin says of a recent rise in demand. “They work and go to school from home.”

Many people are going solar, but younger people are fueling the latest surge, for economic and environmental reasons.

“We’re seeing a surge in first-time home buyers, younger home buyers immediately adopting solar,” he says. “The 30- to 40-year-olds are really surging.”

Maskin added that residents’ biggest regret with solar power typically has less to do with the product than the timing.

“The No. 1 conversation I have with homeowners is, they wish they had done it sooner,” Maskin says.

He believes solar’s future is bright, especially amid a belief that President Joseph Biden is pro renewables, electric vehicles, and charging infrastructure. Pairing solar with a battery energy storage system to keep the lights on during power outages is catching on, Raacke says.

Will Musk show the roof is the limit for his technological revolution? For now, Tesla’s solar shingles can be pricey, making them a niche item, although that could change, if prices drop.

“It’s the same person who bought the first Tesla car,” Maskin says of residents installing Tesla solar shingles now. “There are people out there who want to have the first.”

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Bradley & Parker CEO, Wynne Nowland, Talks Being Trans, Heading Insurance Firm During Covid

bradley & parker CEO
Bradley & Parker CEO Wynne Nowland recently came out as transgender.

Wynne Nowland leads Bradley & Parker, an insurance, risk management and financial services firm based in Melville. We talked with the CEO about being trans, as well as developments in the insurance industry, including managing Covid.

What was it like as a trans person coming out? My personal experience was probably considerably easier than most. It was a fairly easy transition. I was accepted extremely well by my colleagues, not just the people who work in my company, also our client base, insurance company partners and vendors.

How did you let people in your life know? I picked a date and then I made sure that they were made aware of what I was doing. Nobody likes big surprises like that! I sent out a series of emails to people, letting them know what was going on. To people like my butcher and dry cleaner and even some favorite restaurants, I sent a snail mail telling them what was going on. So the next time I walked in, they knew what to expect.

Was this something that you had wanted for many years or only more recently? If I go back to my childhood, I always felt uncomfortable in my gender and confused as to why I felt the way I did. Back when I was 5 years old, this wasn’t a topic. As time went on, I always felt the same way. There didn’t seem to me to be options to do anything about it. As time marched on and this became more public and the internet made it easier to get information, I went through a gradual process.

To what do you attribute your company’s longevity? We just celebrated our 80th anniversary last year. We think it’s a core belief in doing the best we can for our clients and our team. We’ve tried to adapt to times with technology and customer engagement.

Why aren’t people typically covered for the pandemic? When they write insurance policies, they come up with actuarial tables that develop the rates. Like most of us who didn’t contemplate this could happen, neither did they. If the insurance industry paid all the claims out there because of Covid, the industry could be bankrupt.

Is the insurance industry recession-proof? I like to say the insurance business is not recession-proof, but it is recession-resistant. Most insurance that companies carry can’t be eliminated as a cost-saving measure. To the degree that companies stay in business, they still need insurance. As payrolls and sales went down for some clients, that could drive insurance premiums down.

What things can individuals or companies do to drive down premiums? Working with a qualified insurance advisor, companies can work to be safer, which ultimately can reduce premium costs. For instance, when they hire an employee who will be driving, they check their driving record. There are risk-management techniques, steps companies can take to lower the risks they have.

What are some other examples? If you’re a manufacturer, make sure that any machinery that could injure workers is properly monitored and has the proper locking devices. If a contractor uses a subcontractor, make sure the subcontractor has the proper insurance. If you own a building, make sure a sprinkler is installed and working.

How are you and the insurance companies working with individuals and companies amid Covid? There was a mandated component: We won’t cancel your insurance even if you don’t pay. Then there were voluntary things that the industry and many brokers did to help customers. Many personal insurance companies lowered automobile insurance premiums and refunded some of the premiums. People were not driving as much, so there was less risk. That was fairly common. We reached out to customers to see how they were doing. In cases where their businesses slowed down or temporarily closed, we got insurance carriers to voluntarily reduce some of those premiums.

Do you think the insurance industry could cover future pandemics? I think at some point and probably more so now with the new administration in Washington, they’ll come back to the question as to how to cover something like this in the future. They did that in 2001 after 9/11. A lot of the 9/11 claims weren’t covered either. They developed a new coverage, terrorism coverage, partially underwritten by the federal government. We’ll probably see something like that.

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How a Long Island High School Student is Helping Small Businesses

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Online fundraisers have been a saving grace for many struggling local small businesses impacted by coronavirus. (Getty Images)

Gerard Donnelly, a junior at Chaminade High School in Mineola, has long been a regular customer at Angelina’s Pizzeria and Restaurant in Lynbrook. Even when the pandemic hit, he continued to order from the restaurant.

But he soon heard Angelina’s had closed its second location in Williston Park. The pandemic was hitting Angelina’s hard, as well as many other businesses. Rather than simply watch, Donnelly went to work — by fundraising.

Deciding to let adversity be the mother of invention Donnelly launched a GoFundMe campaign to help the restaurant. A thousand dollars later, Donnelly had provided a helping hand for Angelina’s, raising money and awareness. He then launched a GoFundMe campaign for Garden City Skin Care Center in Garden City.

While residents can support a business by being customers, Donnelly is doing more — raising funds. Donnelly created GoFundMe campaigns to essentially adopt a business, or help small businesses under pressure from the pandemic. In the process he’s also been reminding people that the local businesses they love often face their own challenges.

“Many small business and restaurant owners spent their entire life creating their business, and I’d like to help them as much as I could,” Donnelly said on the GoFundMe page he set up titled “Help Long Island Small Businesses” at Gofundme.com/f/saveLibusiness.

Formal programs like the Paycheck Protection Program were put in place nationwide to assist companies amid Covid-19, providing a lifeline to businesses. Asset Enhancement Solutions, based in Uniondale, has helped more than 1,000 companies, including many on Long Island, obtain well over $100 million in PPP funding.

“Most of the Long Island small business community is still reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic,” AES President Neil Seiden said.

AES has been helping companies obtain funds through PPP’s round two, offering free webinars, explaining the program and documentation required to complete applications, in addition to helping companies seeking financing. 

“AES has been part of the Long Island small business community for almost 18 years,” Seiden said, “and we want this community to survive and even thrive at the other end of this economic struggle.”

While PPP is the government’s principal program to help, Donnelly has been doing what he can locally, adopting small businesses or at least launching GoFundMe campaigns that could inspire others to do the same. 

“Throughout my 16 years on Earth, these small businesses have been there for me,” Donnelly said.

He sees himself as also helping business people, often entrepreneurs, who devoted much of their life to building a business that may have survived and even thrived for decades.

“I also donate Covid supplies and materials,” he said, “so they don’t need to spend unnecessary money for supplies.”

Then there’s the promotion of the company, reminding people that local businesses they love are there — and need and deserve their business.

“Angelina’s is a staple in the community here in Lynbrook,” Donnelly said of his first GoFundMe campaign for the restaurant owned by Vincent Sorrentino. “Vinny is extremely family friendly and outgoing. I felt if I was to help someplace, it would be them.”

Garden City Skin Care Center, the second source of a campaign, is owned by Kelly Martinez, who said her business closed for four months due to the coronavirus and reopened with Covid-19 precautions.

Martinez has been a technician at Garden City Skin Care Center for more than 20 years, but seven years ago bought the company, when her boss wanted to retire.  She poured her soul into the company, which began to struggle because of the pandemic. 

“She told me her story,” Donnelly said. “I figured that they could use any help and if I could muster up some money, it would help.”

Buying the business let Martinez and her co-workers continue to have a place to work and to serve clients.

“I applied for many things,” Kelly says on the GoFundMe page of one source of support. “I cleaned out my bank account.”

She has invested in supplies and Covid-19-related materials and has been tested for the virus every two weeks for her clients’ safety since June.

Companies such as AES have been providing help in getting a PPP lifeline and funding in general. Meanwhile, individuals like Donnelly are doing what they can, as well.

Rather than setting up a new GoFundMe campaign for each business, Donnelly has been raising $1,000 for one business – and then the next. 

“It’s all the same campaign, really,” he said of the push to raise funds through a single bigger campaign for small businesses on Long Island.

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New SUNY Old Westbury President Talks Higher Education in a Pandemic

suny old westbury
Timothy Sams recently took over the presidency of SUNY Old Westbury from longtime predecessor Rev. Calvin O. Butts III.

Timothy Sams started the new year with a new role, as president of State University of New York (SUNY) Old Westbury. He talked with the Press about the college and its about 4,800 students, education during a pandemic, the school’s value, and his vision.

Did serving as a vice president at schools such as Prairie View A & M in Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York help prepare you for a job as president? Being a three-time vice president is probably the best way to move toward a presidency. My commitment at these schools was about leveraging resources on behalf of the students for their success, erasing barriers to their success. 

For how long has becoming a college president been a goal? It became a goal when I moved on to Rensselaer. It wasn’t before that. It was something I considered and many of my mentors pushed me to consider it. They felt as though they saw presidency in my future. Once I got to Rensselaer, I was being trained in how to move an institution strategically and I enjoyed doing that.

What attracted you to becoming president of SUNY Old Westbury? The diversity of the institution and familiarity of the challenges. And knowing how to remove those challenges at the institutional level, as well as the values of the institution around community.

What do you think makes SUNY Old Westbury a good fit in terms of your experience? If you gleaned anything from my 30 years of work, it would be that I’m an ardent supporter of social justice education, inclusive excellence. That’s a contemporary version of multicultural education.

What’s it like to lead the school at such an unusual time due to Covid-19? It’s challenging. Covid has a way of removing things that are important to graduating students at our institution, a close educational experience, intervening to remove barriers that keep them from being successful. Raising funds that require building relationships, the difficulty of building a relationship over Zoom. Knowing our students prefer to be on campus and in the classroom.

How do you build community in a world of Covid? You have to temper your expectations and realize you can’t do it in the most ideal way. Given the constraints of Covid, you make a determination about what is possible. And you engage in ways to realize those possibilities: smaller cohorts, letting students connect on smaller levels, leveraging social media without allowing fatigue to set in. Building community is a part of the educational experience.

How can you build connection between students? The smaller the core cohort, the stronger the connection for students. You want to prevent isolation. And you want to support things that allow students to see each other, even if it’s virtual. To talk to one another. And you want to make sure that faculty are engaging students in a way that they feel worthwhile, that students feel they’re achieving. What is often lost during this period is, faculty and staff experience the same things students feel. They’re dealing with challenges, teaching in this medium.

How do you engage students remotely in an electronic classroom? We’re a brick-and-mortar school for the most part. Students commute to our campus We had to do a hard shift to train our teachers how to deliver course work within the online realm. You’ve got to remember students are curious about the subject matter. Tap into that curiosity. Mold your style, your slides. All those things have to come together in a way that harnesses that curiosity.

Is making the school safe amid Covid also a priority? The area we often forget in the challenges of being a president in this era is keeping the staff and faculty safe. We too have front-line workers who every day risk their health to keep the place clean, sanitized. We have to make sure we’re mindful of the challenge associated with their work as well.

What are you proud of in terms of the school as you arrive? You know what I’m proud of? We have not compromised the delivery of our excellent education. We feel very confident that our course offerings and the quality of our education remained excellent. We trained teachers. Students are staying engaged. We have not experienced a mass exodus of students. Our enrollment numbers stayed strong.

How would you describe SUNY Old Westbury in a few words? We are a “hidden gem.” We have tremendous potential. I hope quickly we won’t be a hidden gem. Everyone will understand what makes us a great place and we will realize our potential.

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Medical Teams Innovate in Covid-19 Treatments, Testing Methods

covid-19 treatments
Drs. Stanley John, Hugh Cassiere, and Todd Goldstein converted a BiPAP to a ventilator and and shared instruction on how to 3D print a hard-to-find t-valve that others will need to replicate the efforts. Credit: Northwell Health.

In March, soon after the pandemic hit New York hard, Northwell Health held a virtual press conference, unusual in itself, with executives socially distanced as they announced three clinical trials related to Covid-19 treatments. 

“We’re all living in a new reality,” Northwell Health President and CEO Michael Dowling said. The three trials launched within weeks, not months.

Healthcare workers since then have continued fighting on the front lines of Covid-19 in a kind of accelerated reality where hospitals in addition to providing care have had to use new ways to treat and fight the pandemic. While the story of heroism in hospitals has been widely told, their roles in innovation, from supplies to treatment and trials, is a big part of the story. 

Amid supply shortages, hospitals began building what they couldn’t buy. Facing potential nasal swab testing shortages, Northwell teamed with the University of South Florida Health, 3D printing company Formlabs, and Tampa General Hospital to make 3D printed nasal swabs to test for Covid-19 in patients.

Stony Brook University used 3D printers to make face shields to protect healthcare workers rather than only seeking to purchase.

“We are doing something positive to protect the health of the medical professionals that are helping the community,” Charlie McMahon, Stony Brook University’s interim senior vice president and enterprise chief information officer, said.

Amid a concern over a possible ventilator shortage early on, Northwell developed a system to convert BiPAP machines used for sleep apnea into makeshift ventilators.  

“I knew we could develop a way to repurpose and convert these machines,” Dr. Hugh Cassiere, medical director for respiratory care services at North Shore University Hospital, said. 

While hospitals sought to overcome shortages, they also went full speed ahead with clinical trials well beyond those they announced in March.

Northwell’s Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research (FIMR) created a Covid-19 Clinical Trial Unit that the system describes as a 200-member rapid-response clinical trial group to review and set up therapeutic clinical trials.

FIMR launched more than half a dozen clinical trials and programs including those for famotidine, remdesivir and monoclonal antibody sarilumab, and joined the Mayo Clinic’s convalescent plasma initiative. Northwell enrolled more than 1,200 patients in Covid research trials across the system

“The results of our research findings were published in more than 200 manuscripts,” said Matthew Libassi, a Feinstein spokesman.

Hospitals also worked to ramp up, and improve, testing. Northwell Health Labs in September said that since the pandemic hit it has spent more than $30 million to increase Covid-19 testing,  boosting volume and improving procurement. 

“Our goal has been to deploy at scale as much testing as possible,” said Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director of Northwell Health Labs. “As various supply chain issues have emerged, maintaining multiple testing platforms has been a successful mitigation strategy.”

Northwell Labs is currently processing about 7,000 molecular nucleic acid amplification tests and an additional 3,000 antibody tests daily.

Northwell researchers also are seeking to develop a new Covid-19 test that can process three times the number of patients currently served. 

“We hope that providing another testing option to detect SARS-CoV-2 with a clinically validated set of reagents will assist in this effort at a time when supply chain has been a major issue,” Gregory J. Berry, director of Northwell Health’s Division of Infectious Disease Diagnostics, said.

Northwell Health Labs also is part of a multiyear Feinstein Institutes $11.3 million grant to develop and deploy Covid antibody tests, as the system seeks to scale up to meet demand.

“We must develop more efficient and accurate antibody tests and integrate them with a deeper understanding of the disease,” Dr. Peter Gregersen, a professor of molecular medicine and investigator at the Feinstein Institutes, said.

Healthcare providers also changed approaches, finding that proning, placing patients temporarily on their stomach, can assist with breathing.

“We utilized proning in an efficient manner,” said Dr. Sahar Ahmad, director of ultrasound and critical care education at Stony Brook School of Medicine. “Proning is not beneficial to all patients with this condition, but we started to get more efficient with those for whom we applied proning.”

Hospitals also have had to innovate to obtain and distribute supplies. Northwell shifted employees at its more than 85,000-square-foot distribution center, the Integrated Distribution Center in Bethpage, from six days a week to every day when needed in the pandemic. This kept a steady stream of gloves, masks, syringes and isolation gowns flowing to hospitals.

“They increased truck capacity coming and going and things were flying off the shelves,” Libassi said. “They work hand in hand with procurement to ensure that supplies don’t run out in any of our 23 hospitals.” 

The system ordered and stocked its shelves with four times the amount of supplemental vaccine supplies such as gloves, masks, alcohol swabs, and syringes than would be used in an ordinary year.

Stony Brook took steps to maintain employees’ mental health as stress soared. And Northwell, the largest private employer in the state, says it worked hard to maintain its employees’ health, including a mask mandate, mental health services, and other programs.

“We developed materials parents can use to explain to their kids what Covid is all about and helped with childcare support,” Libassi said. “We’re now working on vaccine rollout for those first up/at risk and then going from there.”

For more coronavirus coverage, visit longislandpress.com/coronavirus

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Zebra Technologies’ Tom Bianculli Talks Augmented Reality, Store Robots, More Tech Innovations

zebra technologies
Zebra Technologies’ Chief Technology Officer Tom Bianculli.

Zebra Technologies’ Chief Technology Officer Tom Bianculli is an executive based in Holtsville for the Lincolnshire, Ill., tech company. We talked with him about his role and how the tech company, with about 1,100 Long Island employees, is innovating amid the pandemic.

What is the role of a chief technology officer at a tech company? There are typically three models. One model is running engineering across an entire company, having a matrix of the use of that engineering across products. A second is much more outbound, engaging with academia, media, and analysts and being the face of the company from a technology perspective. The third is our model, helping to coordinate and deliver on our advanced development roadmaps, maturing emerging technologies needed to deliver future products, understanding investments we need to drive our vision. And thought leadership, working with industry peers, executives at customers, the media, industry analysts, and investors.

How has Zebra been innovating in terms of automation? We launched SmartSight, a robot-based solution that can autonomously navigate the store and detect if stock is out or pricing and promotions aren’t set properly, and alert the store manager or frontline workers to take corrective action that will improve store operations and enhance the customer experience. In many store formats, a robot that can roam the store is a more flexible way of deploying than a fixed camera infrastructure to see everything. Depending on the retailer’s product mix, it can be more cost-effective. It’s being piloted with a number of customers.

What other innovations are recent or in the works? We have also been innovating in a few other areas including automation and augmentation of the worker’s workflow.  Zebra FulfillmentEdge software boosts warehouse task efficiency and accuracy by overlaying shelf location, pick quantity, remaining picks and bin-sorting information within each worker’s field of vision. With FulfillmentEdge, companies can increase worker productivity by almost 25 percent and reduce new hire onboarding and training by up to 90 percent. It’s not virtual reality where you’re fully immersed in a virtual world. This is augmented reality, letting you see the environment around you and giving you additional contextual information.

Can you give me an example of innovation directly related to the pandemic? We made a free Covid-19 mapping tool available to our retail customers. It provides a color-coded, action-driven dashboard driven by Zebra Prescriptive Analytics. You can see on a map where your stores are. We overlay the Covid outbreak data on top of that. The retailer can use that to adjust inventory, store staff, and operating procedures, based on where breakouts occur. Certain items become more in demand than others based on the cycle of a breakout. Is it starting to break out, did it peak, is it coming down? They can adjust inventory in the store.

What Zebra Technologies innovations are being used by healthcare providers? We offer mobile computers and barcode scanners using advanced medical-grade plastics as well as wristband identification technology. And we’re offering Temptime temperature sensing and monitoring solutions. Hospital wristbands are typically strips with printed information wrapped around a patient’s wrist. We can print human readable information, barcode information, and have radio-frequency identification (RFID) built into it as well. We can be within proximity of the wristband and read it. Temptime is a set of label technologies able to indicate the temperature profile vaccines and medicines have been exposed to over time. Vaccines need to be kept at a certain temperature and before they’re administered, brought up to a certain temperature. Temptime’s HEATmarker Vaccine Vial Monitors have been used to monitor the temperature exposure of vaccines, as recommended by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. 

What products has Zebra developed related to Covid-19 beyond healthcare? In May, we launched MotionWorks Proximity, which has software on our mobile computers that can detect when they come within 6 feet of each other. Workers on a factory floor or a warehouse would typically use our devices to scan and check inventory. When those devices come within 6 feet of each other, we can generate a digital event for contact tracing if someone comes up positive. It also can alert the people in real time.

What other exciting things are in the works at Zebra? Computer vision is a big technology area that we’re investing in. This allows us to recognize products and gestures, help streamline checkout at a point-of-sale lane, and be able in an automated way to detect what’s on the shelf, using product recognition. About one year ago, we acquired a London-based computer vision company called Cortexica, focused on computer vision technology. We can leverage that technology to recognize a product or a gesture from a user interface or read a label automatically. Think of it as making a checkout lane more friendly. We read not just the barcode, but recognize the product even without a barcode.

How has Zebra handled Covid regarding your own practices at the company? We’re users of our own technology. We use our MotionWorks Proximity solution in our own distribution centers. Like many companies, we got more creative with virtual meetings. We looked at which products have seen more volume, and dynamically adjusted our supply chain and ability to ship and build products that saw a surge, such as our healthcare-specific mobile computers, wristband printers, and label printers for specimen tracking.

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