Cathy Deutsch finally reached a crossroad earlier this month.
Deutsch, the owner of Tiger Lily boutique on Mount Kisco’s Main Street, was forced to close from mid-March to late May at the start of the COVID-19 crisis along with tens of thousands of other businesses.
But when the local region entered the first phase of a multistep reopening in late May enabling her to first return with curbside retail before resuming store operations, most of her customers were nowhere to be found.
Whether it was because of health concerns, financial considerations or that many of the women who have been dedicated customers during the past 17 years have been working from home and don’t need new clothes at the moment, she could no longer continue paying her expenses.
By next month, Deutsch will be the latest merchant to shutter, an economic victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We could not cover five months of losing six digits of sales,” she said. “It’s like being closed for half a year. So how do you pay your people who filled your store with goods when you close and can’t make revenue to pay them, and how do you ask them to ship to you when you don’t have the confidence the fall will be any better? That’s what drove my decision.”
Deutsch will be at least the third clothing-related store on Mount Kisco’s Main Street to close since the start of the summer. Several doors down from her, Nysrepe Kelmendi, owner of Unique Fittings, which provided alterations on formal wear, was about to vacate her space a little more than two years after moving in.
With no wedding receptions, proms, graduations or Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, a thriving business dried up almost as quickly as it would take to turn off a faucet.
“Business was really good, I can tell you,” Kelmendi said. “For now, everything is shut down and I have to just close. I have no other choice. I cannot continue any longer with no business.”
The two closures come after Jos A. Bank, the men’s clothier, left town. With Modell’s now closed following an extended liquidation and the movie theater in a forced closure because the state has prohibited theaters from operating, the relatively small stretch of Main Street between Green Street and Village Hall has its challenges.
Beth Vetare-Civitello, the co-executive director of the Mount Kisco Chamber of Commerce, said that any recovery of the downtown will depend on the confidence the public has in venturing out on a regular basis. That confidence depends on a permanent dissipation of the health threat.
“As a resident, as the chamber person, I believe that we are going to rebound, but I also believe that it’s going to take some very serious work on our part, on the part of the village, the county and the state to make sure and ensure that all these towns and their small businesses are able to remain and thrive,” Vetare-Civitello said.
Part of the commitment from various levels of government came through last week when the Mount Kisco Chamber of Commerce was one of 17 organizations throughout Westchester that will share nearly $600,000 in a grant from the county, she said.
The Community Table Partnership enables local chambers of commerce or nonprofit agencies to help families struggling with food insecurity because of COVID-19 while supporting the local restaurant industry. Grants can be used for food vouchers that can be redeemed at participating restaurants or toward the distribution of cooked meals.
Mount Kisco is hardly the only downtown facing an uncertain future. While other hamlets may not have the visibly growing vacancies at the moment, there are struggles everywhere, although in some communities it’s less apparent.
In Pleasantville, Chamber of Commerce President Bill Flooks said the only pandemic-induced business closure that he is aware of was Green Pink Cleaners Plus on Wheeler Avenue in late spring. With many people working from home and far fewer places to go, there was a sharp reduction in business for the cleaners, he said.
In Armonk, the storefronts appear full, but that doesn’t always tell the relative strength of a downtown, said Chamber of Commerce President Neal Schwartz. For many businesses their success hinged on whether they secured a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program or assistance from some other program.
Without many of the large retail spaces, the hamlet has been spared the worst impacts, but business owners generally don’t publicize their difficulties to others, he said.
“I think people are trying to hold on,” Schwartz said. “Some of the programs that are out there are vital programs. Some of them were extremely helpful. For people that engaged with these (programs), I think they’re doing better than those who, for whatever reason, weren’t willing to or didn’t think they would be able to or didn’t have the wherewithal.”
While most municipalities sought to help restaurant owners with expedited approvals for outdoor dining, there were others that were unable to survive. In Mount Kisco, the owners of Winston vacated their Main Street space in late June after six years in business.
General Manager Jimmy Branigan and Executive Chef and partner Michael Williams explained in a note to the community that they posted outside their door.
“As many of you know and have personally felt, the pandemic has made a lasting change in the day-to-day reality for so many, not least of which for restaurants,” they stated in part. “As the county begins to reopen, we have tried to picture what that future would look like for Winston and, like so many in our industry, we just couldn’t picture a scenario in which reopening our dining room would be an operationally, financially or otherwise viable option.”
Allen Wallace, owner of Soul Brewing Company on Pleasantville’s Wheeler Avenue, opened his establishment a couple of days before the March shutdown. He said the community has been generous with its support, by buying gift cards and growlers and crowlers, which have helped him to stay afloat.
In June, the village allowed outdoor dining, so Wallace was able to set up about six tables outside, along with a handful inside.
This week Wallace was scheduled to appear before the Village Board to seek a cabaret license to have socially-distanced musical performances, but he will also look to sell the beer he produces elsewhere.
“It’s tough because my production is limited, and in reality, over time, I can really sell everything that I make, but given the situation, I feel it’s better to start to spread out a little bit,” Wallace said.
But with summer drawing to a close, Flooks said many of the restaurants who have been helped by the outdoor dining may be faced with a difficult situation once the cold weather sets in.
“They’re going to have to turn the tables over in a reasonable amount of time,” Flooks said. “But it’s going to be reservation only, I assume. It’s still going to hurt the restaurant business because customers are not going to wait an hour and a half.”
Despite Mount Kisco’s struggles, Mayor Gina Picinich expressed confidence about the village’s future. Vacancy rates had shrunk to 10 percent before the pandemic, and even today the village received plenty of inquiries from those interested in Mount Kisco.
“We stand ready as soon as people are prepared to invest again,” Picinich said. “I have every confidence that this will be the place where people come to invest.”