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Bronx eye care business finds ways to stay focused during COVID-19 crisis

John Bonizio holds a device that sterilizes his store.

While eye care is considered essential, John Bonizio, owner and operator of Metro Optics in the Bronx, took no chances when COVID-19 began ravaging the borough — even though it came at a severe cost to his business.

Metro Optics closed all four stores in the Bronx chain. The Westchester Square location was kept open to continue supplying glasses to residents. People were able to order glasses if they already had a prescription, but he realized his business needed to change to meet the challenge of the pandemic.

“We didn’t know the issues of the pandemic, so we closed for the safety of our employees, but kept one store open, ” Bonizio recalled of the early part of the pandemic in March. “We just didn’t want our staff in the workplace because we didn’t know how this bad was. we furloughed them with pay – everyone was paid.”

Bonizio’s doctors have stepped up to deal with eye emergencies so that people don’t have to go to hospitals that were dealing with Covid-19 cases.

The other day, Bonizio said, he re-opened his store in Throggs Neck, but he remains cautious for the safety of his staff and customers.

“We had to borrow money and use our own money to keep this going,” Bonizio said. “We spent an awful lot of money on masks, PPE, gloves, we rearranged locations so we can do social distancing. If a family of three comes in with broken glasses, we now have tables for them away from other people. We now have sections of waiting areas to make sure there is social distancing. Staff will ask them to use hand sanitizer and if they don’t have a mask, we will give them one.”

 

Employee at Metro Optics is fully equipped for safety.

Despite the need for glasses, some people are actually going on without them because “a lot of people [are] hiding.” Business has dropped at least 87%, yet Bonizio continues to pay his 56 employees.

“We have been paying staff from day one — and we have advanced people a year of their personal time going forward if they needed it,” Bonizio said. “However, we’ve canceled all vacations — I was going on a cruise, but you can’t go anywhere anyway.”

Further steps that his business has taken to protect customers and staff include all staff wears masks and gloves at all times, however, sometimes delicate adjustments must be made so gloves are impossible. So his staff must use sanitizer, wash hands and he has instructed workers “don’t touch your face — it’s now our mantra.”

Eye doctors have transformed examination rooms — they use face shields, gowns, and eye-examining machines are sanitized on each use. A fresh sheet of paper is on each examining table for each patient.

Doctors must get closer to patients than other employees, so in addition to PPE’s, they wear elastic wrist protection, 3M N95 masks, and face shield. Some doctors find the shields distort their vision, so they wear prescription safety goggles. Bonizio says safety is “primary.”

But going forward, Bonizio believes his business will eventually return to full strength. Yet he worries about his neighbors’ stores and he worries about empty storefronts marring shopping areas. He’s also concerned about government policies and “overreaction” that might cause new problems.

Bonizio believes shutting down the city for the summer is “overreaction and a stupid thing to do — high school kids are not going to stay in the house and they will have nowhere to go and nothing to do.”

“I don’t know how they will police beaches — I was walking the other day next to the Cross Island Parkway [in Queens] and people were running, biking and walking, coming by panting with no face mask and that’s not enforced,” Bonizio said. “There will be a point where you can’t control people though — you can’t keep strong-arming people because they don’t wear a mask. People have been locked up for so long, people will again start to have barbecues, beer in the park, they will again go shopping, but it might not be the same.”

Bonizio did receive the PPP money and was able to pay his workers and pay his rent. He said he was on top of it from Day 1, but he is concerned because it was an onerous process. The system kept crashing and many businesses will not be able to get the help they need.

He also said he believes the City Council has been creating policies that are “destroying small businesses.” Bonizio is a board member of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce and sees an “assault” on small businesses from many levels.

“This is not going to be light switch to turn businesses on, it will be weeks many businesses will be out,” Bonizio said. “The Council is using the tragedy to go after small business so it’s essential that they need to pay extra money — their margins are already razor-thin.”

He believes it will take cooperation on all levels to save most businesses, especially restaurants that will be destroyed by this crisis.

“There will be restaurants and stores smart enough to weather the storm — but they will need landlords that are not looking to throw people out — but will make deals to keep their tenants. Some landlords may be smart enough to make deals with banks who are in bad positions to begin with and they need to make deals, but in the end, the smart businesses will survive and come back,” Bonizio concluded.

Workers sterilize parts of their eye examine room.

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