Long Island business owners say they're struggling with new mask mandate

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SUFFOLK COUNTY (WABC) -- COVID positivity rates are continuing to climb on Long Island, with the 14-day average in Nassau County at 7%.

The daily average rate in Suffolk County is now up to 13.6%, the highest it has been in almost a year.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone says 90% of adults are fully vaccinated, but he is pushing for more to get booster shots.

Two vaccine sites are slated to open Monday at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach and another in the West Sayville area.

A third site will open on January 4 in Sound Beach.

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Meantime, Congressman Lee Zeldin was joined by local elected officials, small business owners and employees Tuesday at a market in Smithtown to voice opposition for Governor Kathy Hochul's indoor statewide mask mandate.

Zeldin, who is running on the Republican ticket for New York Governor, said at the press conference, "Governor Hochul's mandates, threats, fines and firings are keeping customers away from small businesses when they need them most."

Zeldin held the press conference outside Panico's Community Market in Smithtown where the owner, Donato Panico, said he has had to get in the middle of angry customers fighting over the mask mandate.

"Do I need to hire a bouncer if I harass someone for wearing a mask or not wearing a mask?" he asked. "Customers are fighting in the store."

Erol Alkan, the owner of Krinti restaurant in Woodbury, said he opted for the vaccination proof option because he couldn't ensure that patrons would wear their masks at all times at the table, as specified in the state guidelines.

The guidelines for restaurants are clear, "Patrons of your establishment can remove their masks only while they are actively eating or drinking. Masks should be worn in all other instances outside of physical eating and drinking."

"I was not going to be able to enforce that to every single table," he said.

Even at the height of the pandemic when restaurants had capacity restrictions the mask language was not as strict. Patrons were allowed to take their masks off as soon as they sat at a table.

Alkan said overall his customers have been happy with the vaccination checks, although he said he lost a few customers.

"Most of them were understanding," he said. "Just a few of them left angry."

Alkan said he feels the State put businesses in a bad position by allowing them to choose whether they wanted to check proof of vaccination or not. He said it has pitted business against business.

"If this decision wasn't left to business owners to choose, pick and choose, what side they want to be on be on, I think it would have been a little more cohesive," he said.

Hochul has allocated money for businesses across the state if they need to recoup the costs of mask enforcement or vaccination checks, including hiring personnel or creating public health educational materials to distribute to customers.

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