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Cautious owners prepare for getting back to Long Island business unmasked

This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Cecilia Dowd, Corin Hirsch and Sarina Trangle. It was written by Robert Brodsky.

For nearly two years, Tom Cataldo Jr., owner of a chain of Long Island taco eateries, has faced a vexxing dilemma: how to satisfy customers and keep them coming back, regardless of their views on wearing a face mask.

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That dilemma comes to an end Thursday for Cataldo and business owners large and small across Long Island when they open their doors for the first time in a long time without a state mask mandate.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s announcement Wednesday to lift the contentious mandate means customers at one of Cataldo’s three Dirty Tacos & Tequila restaurants will now eat or drink without the inconvenience or even stigma of face coverings.

Ending the mask mandate might be good for business, but as far as customers and Long Islanders in general, Cataldo said, “A lot of people don’t like masks. A lot of people think we still need them.”

For restaurant owners, he said, mandatory masking has been “the battle between looking out for ourselves, looking out for our health, looking out for fines and looking out for guest safety. It’s too much.”

The end of the mandate, which affects restaurants, stores, gyms, offices and theaters, comes as infection rates from the winter virus surge continue to rapidly decline.

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Local businesses and municipalities will still have the option to mandate masking or proof of vaccination but it will no longer be required by the state, Hochul said.

Lily Bergh, owner of Little Switzerland Dolls and Toys, a Huntington toy store, has mixed feelings about the mandate being lifted.

“I’m a little nervous,” said Bergh, who plans to continue wearing a mask. “I think it’s needed. I’m nervous.”

Other business owners, such as Mimi Chi, owner of Ikedo Ramen, a Japanese restaurant in Port Washington, said that while they won’t mandate that patrons wear face coverings, her employees “are fine with continuing to mask to both protect themselves and our customers.”

Scott Rechler, chief executive of RXR Realty, one of the largest commercial property owners on Long Island, said Hochul’s decision seemed well-reasoned.

“With nearly 80% of Long Islanders and New York City residents fully vaccinated and our hospitals maintaining healthy levels of capacity,” Rechler said in a statement, “this is exactly the kind of step we should be taking as we emerge from this latest surge and move on with life in the new normal.”

Treeline Companies in Garden City, which owns two million square feet of office space in the metropolitan area, will take time to review the new state policy before changing its rules, said Daniel Schor, whose family owns the real estate firm. Treeline currently has signs notifying tenants and visitors that masks are required in lobbies, elevators and common areas of its buildings.

“We haven’t made any final decisions as to how we’re going to handle the public spaces. We need to review it internally,” Schor said, adding that he has not fielded complaints about the masking policy as tenants have mostly returned to the office.

“Our parking lots are full,” he said.

Sergio DeCiantis, co-owner of Cara Mia in Seaford and Park Place in New Hyde Park, was relieved by the expiration of the mandate.

“We weren’t really enforcing the mandate over the last few weeks or so, but we were making our staff wear them,” DeCiantis said. “We won’t be enforcing masks at any locations now that it’s not required. It should be up to the customer and employee at this point — however they are comfortable to work and dine out.”

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