The near-total shutdown in commercial activity on the South Fork amid the coronavirus pandemic is now impacting an industry that in ordinary times would be in its busiest period of the year: landscaping.
After new guidance was issued by New York State last Thursday, the East Hampton Town Police Department posted an update about landscaping on its Facebook page on Friday: “only ‘maintenance’ service is now deemed essential,” per a revision to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s New York State on PAUSE executive order, the department wrote. “The Governor’s office issued the change last night and has determined [that] other than ‘property maintenance,’ and certain licensed spraying, all new landscape projects, including new planting, is non-essential, and must cease immediately.”
Food crop agriculture remains essential, according to the Police Department’s message. The post includes the web page at which residents observing prohibited activity can file a complaint with the state’s Covid-19 enforcement task force.
New York’s Empire State Development agency is advising businesses that landscaping “has been designated as essential solely as it relates to maintenance and pest control . . . not cosmetic landscaping.” The agency, an official said, also noted that “an ‘essential’ industry does not mean business as usual -- business can only be conducted if social distancing and other public health protocols are followed and all must be doing everything they can to help stop the spread” of the coronavirus.
“We’re close to closed down,” Charlie Whitmore, of Charlie & Sons Landscapes in Amagansett, said on Monday.
Second-home owners typically insist that landscaping projects be completed by Memorial Day, certainly by Independence Day. Mr. Whitmore said a staff that would normally number around 60 in the spring is closer to 6. Employees have been told to stay home as the state’s Covid-19 infections are anticipated to peak in the coming days or weeks. “We’re doing some bare-bones things to keep people happy, but mostly doing it ourselves,” he said of his family-owned and operated business. “That’s it.”
Charlie & Sons’ website states that its garden center and offices are closed to the public per the governor’s order, but the company is open, and orders and in quiries can be made by telephone or email.
Henry Tong, an owner of Creative Design Landscapes in East Hampton, said that its staff has been pared down by around 75 percent. “For landscapers, we always get ready for spring, knowing projects are coming,” he said on Monday. “Now, everything is turned around, we’re canceling projects. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
His few employees wear masks and gloves at job sites, Mr. Tong said, lamenting the difficulty they face in carrying out permitted essential services on three and four-acre properties. “I understand why we have to do this,” he said, “but we are definitely feeling it.”
“The biggest problem we have right now as a business owner,” Mr. Whitmore said, “is not knowing what’s going to happen. So many things we do in the spring to set up for the season, we are not able to do them now because we don’t know the track of the virus.”
Like the South Fork’s restaurants, landscaping is a seasonal business, he said. “The next few months are our biggest of the season, for the industry as a whole and for myself personally. It’s a catastrophe, because this is when we really make our money.”
Like restaurants, he said, “once you close for those weeks and months, you don’t get them back.” But unlike landscapers, “restaurants are more ‘summer’ seasonal. They may come back. July is not May in our business.”
Both Mr. Whitmore and Mr. Tong said that they are planning to take advantage of the federal Coronavirus Aid,
Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, which allocated $377 billion in emergency grants and forgivable loans for companies with 500 or fewer employees. Until that money flows, however, “clients could tell us, ‘We don’t have the cash for you,’ “ Mr. Tong said. “Everything is by chance. We don’t get paid for at least 30 days, so everything is coming out of our pockets.”
“It’s not a panacea,” Mr. Whitmore said of the CARES Act. “It’s not going to solve the overall challenges, because the money we make now gets us through the rest of the year.”
Mr. Tong said that his company’s focus is on thinking positively, keeping employees safe, and keeping clients happy. “Right now, we have to get together and take care of each other,” he said. “I tell clients, if you need groceries, anything, we’ll do it for you at no charge.”
Mr. Whitmore summarized his industry this way: “We’re all broke together.”