The Sky Didn’t Fall After All

As the coronavirus pandemic raged across the United States last year and the nation went into lockdown, the effect on the national economy was acute. Overnight, stores were shuttered, factories closed, production lines ceased, and millions of people became unemployed.

Between late April and late August of 2020, Hamodia Prime ran a series of 15 weekly interviews with people in different industries discussing the effect of the lockdown on their business. Generally, the early interviewees reported total or near-total shutdowns — “K’heref ayin, everything disappeared,” one business owner said — while later interviewees said their businesses had begun opening.

The series was titled “The Sky Isn’t Falling,” based on an early interviewee who reported uncertainty but not total disaster. But it would quickly become apparent that that title was more than a tad overly optimistic, as a number of interviewees reported having lost more than 90% of their business during the period of complete lockdown.

Now, more than a year into the pandemic, Hamodia reconnected with nine of the interviewees to see how the past year has been for them, and how they are doing now. Everyone we spoke with says they are now doing as well as, if not better than, they were before the pandemic. Difficult as the shutdown may have been, and despite significant lingering issues like production and shipping delays, the sky didn’t fall after all.

Eric Palatnik, a Manhattan real-estate attorney, whose business focuses on getting discretionary approvals from the City of New York for people who want rezonings or variances, as well as helping people get approvals at the Department of Buildings.

Original interview published: April 29, 2020

Then: Having his employees work remotely wasn’t too difficult; Palatnik actually predicted that even after the pandemic is over, “there will be a lot more acceptance of remote working.”

But much of Palatnik’s work involves holding public meetings to get variances and rezonings, and he said it was tough to have these meetings via Zoom.

Eric Palatnik

“I have a business where the meetings usually happen in a big, public forum, where a lot of the public gets to come out and communicate and participate in the process,” he said. “And one of the big problems we’ve had is that it’s very difficult to hold meetings with a lot of people being involved right now.”

The “democratic process involves hearing everybody’s voices and everybody’s participation. But it’s hard for everybody to get their voice in on a Zoom call! Only one person can speak at a time on a Zoom call. So, Zoom is great, and it’s wonderful that we’re all having these Zoom meetings, but they work well when there’s a presentation, so to speak. When you’re trying to have a dialogue with people in a public manner, it’s very hard. You lose the whole natural rhythm of the conversation.”

At that point, early in the shutdown, the money was still coming in from prior projects, but there was “a tremendous drop” in people calling to hire Palatnik for future work.

The most difficult aspect of the shutdown, he said, was keeping his staff upbeat despite an uncertain future.

And through the difficulties and uncertainly, Palatnik was enjoying spending more time at home in Port Washington, Long Island, with his family.

Now: Financially, Palatnik’s business is about where it was prior to the pandemic. But in every other way, he says, the pandemic has actually improved his business model.

First and foremost, the remote working has been a boon for productivity and efficiency.

Previously, everyone may have been in the office, but their duties at times overlapped, and people were unsure of what others were doing. Now, the office holds daily and sometimes twice-daily Zoom calls, and “everybody has a list of what they need to do,” Palatnik says. “Everyone is organized, ready to go, and is efficient. When everyone was in the office, meetings might not have started on time because this person had a phone call and that person had something else. But now, with everyone having to call in on Zoom at a certain time, we are able to make the most out of the call. The world has now become so much more scheduled with calls.

“And if people aren’t working, it’ll be immediately evident. It doesn’t matter who has the nicest smile, the fanciest, shiny shoes, or the most expensive clothes. If the work is not getting done, there’s no hiding anymore.”

And whereas Palatnik had previously found the public meetings with citizens difficult over Zoom, now he embraces it.

“On Zoom, more people can be involved, because you’re getting people who previously couldn’t make it to meetings or weren’t able to command the floor. Somebody in the back of the room might not have been given the same ability to communicate something. Zoom has now allowed that person to be front and center on everybody’s screen, and to make their voice heard.”

Due to his own office staff working remotely, they can work from anywhere. One employee spent some time in Florida while others worked from home or from the homes of relatives.

“My employees are happy, the work is getting done even more efficiently than before, and if they can do the work while ‘vacationing’ somewhere, all the better.”

Though Palatnik has not stepped into his office since the start of the pandemic except to clean up once or twice, he is not giving up the office space.

“New York City is going to come back and people are going to have meetings, and you have to be in a location, a home base, to meet people. New York City is still the focal point of the world. And it’s important to have a presence there.”

Palatnik says he still enjoys spending time at home with his family, though he laughs and adds, “They’ll say maybe it was a little too much.”

And whereas he had previously expressed uncertainty about the future, now he is bursting with optimism.

“A lot of it is because of what I hope the future landscape of the city is,” he says. “[Democratic mayoral nominee] Eric Adams says he will crack down on crime and has a ‘can-do’ attitude. New York City needs to say, ‘We’re the best city ever and we get things done!’ We haven’t had that for a while. We haven’t had anybody out front waving our flag. I’m excited for that and the people I’m talking to are equally excited.”

Chananya Kramer (Kolrom)

Chananya Kramer, President and CEO of Kolrom, a national multimedia company based in Baltimore. Kolrom creates the films that are shown at events like yeshivah and organizational dinners, and at the 13th Siyum HaShas.

Original interview published: May 6, 2020

Then: With all dinners canceled, Kolrom had no jobs in the pipeline at all. Chananya Kramer had to let go of his seven employees. All the yeshivos that had hired him for future dinners had canceled. “K’heref ayin, everything disappeared,” Kramer said.

Now: “Soon after you and I spoke last year, the world woke up to the possibility of virtual events,” Kramer says. The virtual events still required the pre-produced videos, so Kolrom was back in business. Furthermore, Kramer added to Kolrom’s portfolio when he invested in livestreaming equipment (which sold out at B&H soon after he bought them), and his business expanded to not only producing the videos for the events, but streaming them as well, and producing the entire event.

“The mosdos clearly did very well with virtual events. They pulled in good money without spending a lot on halls and catering and the usual costs associated with a regular dinner.”

And Kolrom also did very well.

Chananya Kramer producing a video at Artscroll headquarters.

“We also picked up many more clients that weren’t using us for their general dinners; because we were becoming experts in virtual dinners, we became a go-to for that.”

Kolrom often made more money off these virtual dinners than previously, because now they were not only doing the pre-produced videos, but producing entire events.

Kramer rehired his seven full-time employees plus more, for his now-growing business, which quickly became even more successful than it was before the pandemic.

Kolrom also built a studio at ArtScroll’s headquarters in Rahway, New Jersey. He pitched the company on the idea, which they accepted, as something Artscroll could use for its own videos. But yeshivos and other organizations quickly started renting the space from ArtScroll to have their own videos produced — all by Kolrom.

“I am doing better than I’ve ever been doing.”

Eli Friedman (Eli Friedman Productions 347-581-9633)

Eli Friedman of Eli Friedman Productions, a New York-based party planner who arranges events throughout the tri-state area, including weddings, dinners, and Shabbatons.

Original interview published: May 27, 2020

Then: All of Friedman’s large events had been canceled; he was doing only small home events like bar mitzvahs, tena’ims or family gatherings. His business was 95% gone.

Now:Hodi laHashem ki tov,” Friedman says. “We came back stronger than ever.”

When the economy began opening last summer, Friedman’s customers started holding events again — smaller, but more upscale.

“Instead of having 500 people at a sheva brachos, maybe they were only having 150 people, but they were using the money for fancier food and décor.”

Also, since New York had tough restrictions, many people held their events in more lenient locales like New Jersey or Pennsylvania. When Friedman is hired for an event at one of these “out of town” locations, as opposed to the standard halls in Boro Park or Williamsburg, he does the catering as well. So the proliferation of events out of town was a boon for his business.

One of Friedman’s clients is the organization A Time, which holds an annual high-end Shabbaton for 250 couples in Stamford, Connecticut. With the usual hotel closed last winter, the organization moved the event to Orlando, as Florida had far more liberal pandemic laws. The event was one of the most expensive Friedman ever did; it started on Thursday instead of the usual Friday, and the organization asked for the most upscale décor and accommodations.

Shas-a-Thon 2021 (Eli Friedman Productions 347-581-9633)

Even with New York reopened, Friedman has many events in Florida. Some of these were scheduled months in advance, before it was known whether New York would be open. But others are choosing to schedule Shabbatons in Florida now, even though tri-state hotels are all open for business.

“Until the epidemic, no one ever thought that an organization could take hundreds of people to Orlando for a Shabbaton. But once people did it, they loved it — it’s a change of scenery, a change of weather, etc. Of course, the costs are much higher, but if the budget allows, people are now choosing to go out of town.”

Last summer the organizational dinner and Shabbaton season was canceled. This season, not only are they back, says Friedman, many are holding bigger and fancier events, to make up for a missed year.

“People are very excited to mingle with each other now.”

During the pandemic, when people first began doing small backyard affairs, some people predicted that this would become the norm: that people would enjoy spending less money for intimate events, leading to a permanent change in the standard. Friedman had then told Hamodia he did not believe this would occur; perhaps, he said, people may have somewhat fewer guests or less-fancy food or décor, but he didn’t believe that people would continue holding backyard weddings.

A Shabbos sheva brachos (Eli Friedman Productions 347-581-9633)

And, he says, his prediction was correct: Not only organizational dinners and Shabbatons, but weddings, sheva brachos, and bar mitzvahs, he says are “stronger than before,” not only in décor but in guest-size as well.

“Obviously, back then, people had to have small events in backyards; and at that time it was a beautiful thing. But now that we are back to normal, people are spending more than ever.”

While most of Friedman’s clients are wealthy, he says even the standard, basic weddings in regular halls are at least as high-end as before, if not more so. In addition to his main job of planning events, he has also assisted wedding halls — both fancier and basic ones — in staffing up after the pandemic, when many of their employees quit.

“So I have seen regular weddings, higher-end weddings and lower-end weddings, it doesn’t matter. People are spending the same amount of money as, or more than, before the pandemic.”

Yaakov Katz

Yaakov Katz, photographer for his own Yaakov Katz Studios in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens.

Original interview published: June 3, 2020

Then: Katz’s photography had generally consisted of family portraits, vorts, bar mitzvahs and corporate events. He has also covered political events, as well as the 13th Siyum HaShas. Katz said the pandemic had actually “rejuvenated my business.”

During the pandemic, Katz also did his first-ever wedding, a 40-guest backyard affair in Queens.

But more significantly, he started traveling to different neighborhoods and advertising family shoots in people’s homes and backyards. Families often find it difficult to “get that family shot because the kids are away in yeshivah, or they are working,” he said, but “now everyone is home anyway.” This initiative was popular and successful.

“Right now, I’m doing better than I was before the shutdown.”

Now: Katz has now changed his business model once again: Since November, he has shifted from photography to livestreaming. His company primarily does weddings and funerals, and he is looking to expand to corporate events as well.

He had no previous experience in livestreaming; he had to learn how to do it and buy new equipment. “In fact,” he says, “I’m still buying equipment.”

While almost all people who can are now attending events in-person, Katz says the pandemic popularized the livestreaming of events like weddings and funerals for relatives who could not make it because they are overseas or in the hospital.

“I realized that there was a lot more potential out there, and that if I could make money during a pandemic, I could make even more during normal times.”

While Katz said last year that he was doing even better than before the pandemic, now he says his business has improved further.

As his business has expanded, he has hired several employees. The actual work at his events are generally done by employees — particularly the funerals, as Katz is a kohen.

“I’m making more money than before — and actually working less.”

Rabbi Avrohom Schorr of Simcha Printing, which makes invitations and bentchers for weddings and bar mitzvahs, with locations in Boro Park and Lakewood.

Original interview published: July 1, 2020

Then: Schorr’s business almost completely dried up from mid-March until early June. A few people who made weddings in their own backyards, or in other states with less-restrictive lockdowns, mailed invitations, but most just sent email invitations to the few close friends they invited.

Business started picking up in June, and when we spoke, Simcha Printing was receiving orders for post-Tishah B’Av weddings in Lakewood. The Brooklyn invitation business had not returned.

Some people thought the movement for small weddings might catch on permanently, but Schorr was skeptical.

“I think after the pandemic ends, life will return to how it was before,” he said. “Some people may make smaller affairs, but those will still be fancy.”

Now: The Lakewood business has returned, though the Brooklyn business didn’t bounce back to the same level. Overall, Schorr says his business is more or less the same as it was before the pandemic.

Schorr says that as he predicted, weddings now are just as large and fancy as they were before the pandemic — if not more so.

“People still want to invite all their friends and relatives to their weddings. So the number of invitations per wedding has remained the same,” he says. “But some are ordering even fancier invitations than before.”

Schorr says he is not surprised to see the increased extravagance.

“Many people have not internalized any lessons of COVID. As a layman, it seems to me that we remain the shifchah al hayam. The Mechilta in Parashas Beshalach says that the level of nevuah seen by the shifcha al hayam was higher than that seen by the greater navi Yechezkel ben Buzi. And the Kotzker Rebbe adds that despite seeing all that nevuah, the shifchah remained a shifchah. The nevuah did not change her.

“I think most of us have not changed from COVID, so it’s no chiddush that the weddings have remained the same as well.

“And I think the weddings may even be more extravagant, because people went through a period where they couldn’t have or do certain things. Now that they can, they go above and beyond. They want to ‘live.’ A chacham explained that it’s similar to the Roaring ‘20s — the people had just come out of a world war and the Spanish Flu pandemic, and they wanted to ‘live.’”

One significant hindrance to the business has been a lack of paper supply, caused by recent slowdowns in shipping and trucking.

“Shipping is backed up. Trucking is triple the price. Paper has gone up. Packaging went up across the board. Everything went up by at least 30%.

“Not everything is readily available, and whatever is available is costing much more.”

Schorr attributes the slowdown to a combination of the initial lockdown having shut off supply for so long, continued issues due to fear of COVID, as well as factories unable to find workers now due to increased unemployment benefits.

These issues have raised costs at every level of production, and the industry has had to raise prices, in turn.

Schorr believes it may take six months or more for production and shipping lines to return to normal, and then, “everything could crash. Much inventory is just sitting on ships now, or has never left the manufacturer because there is a lack of personnel, and a shortage of truckers.”

Yitzy (Leo) Eckstein, a New York-based agent for the New York Life insurance company. Eckstein works in a Williamsburg office with hundreds of other New York Life agents.

Original interview published: July 8, 2020

Then: Eckstein’s office shut down early, after he was one of the first people in Brooklyn to test positive for the coronavirus, on March 16.

Yitzy (Leo) Eckstein (Y. Suval)

But by May, the company was well on its way to turning itself around. Some of this was due to new “industry-approved technology, and policies, which I can’t explain without giving away private company information.” But other causes of the turnaround were due to the pandemic itself, as well as changes in some of the accepted standards in the insurance industry.

Firstly, during the pandemic, people started thinking more about the need for life insurance. And because of social-distancing requirements, the company began, for the first time, using videoconferencing technology for sales calls. Also, one of the standard underwriting requirements requires a technician to visit the insured to document basic vitals and collect bloodwork. During the pandemic, the company relaxed this requirement based on certain criteria and accepted a combination of public records, including past medical records, in lieu of in-person visits.

At the time of our interview, Eckstein said the company was going back to requiring an in-person technician home visit as part of the standard underwriting requirements — though it raised the thresholds of the amount of insurance needing this requirement — but that the new “teleconference technology, and the innovations of automating services that previously were done in person, will remain.”

And despite the hardships at the start of the pandemic, “the company very quickly put together the pieces to adjust to the new reality, and we had a very good quarter.”

Now: The company has continued to grow, and Eckstein says the Williamsburg office, which has been around for a decade, just had its best quarter ever.

Much of the success was due to the increased demand for life insurance.

“People are very aware of the need, and they saw how important it was, and how it benefited many Yiddishe families with life insurance during COVID,” he says. “People naturally want the family to be protected. Life insurance is still very inexpensive. We saw what can happen to anyone and that even young families need protection. COVID really has made everyone aware of just how important life insurance is.”

And for Eckstein, virtual meetings have now become the norm.

“I offer Zoom as the default now. Without the travel and everything, it saves me hours of work. So I will typically try to set up meetings via Zoom.”

He acknowledges that “the best meetings are always in-person,” so while he generally prefers Zoom, Eckstein will do in-person meetings for particularly important and larger clients.

“When you meet your larger client, it shows that you have extended yourself and connect on a personal level. Connection is the prelude to trust, and trust is the most important factor in sealing the deal.”

And while agents are now allowed to return to the office, Eckstein is choosing to still work remotely.

“I’m working from home 75% of the time. And I’m loving it.”

Ari Charach

Ari Charach, a New York City-based locksmith for his own one-man company, Aronlocks

Original interview published: July 22, 2020

Then: Between his own COVID illness and quarantine, the shutdown, and then his wife’s COVID illness, for two and a half months at the start of the pandemic Ari Charach was not able to bill for any work at all.

Also, Charach said that commercial landlords did not seem interested in upgrading their security systems despite the increased crime — or perhaps because of it.

“New York state passed new regulations recently that severely restrict landlords’ abilities to raise rent,” Charach said. “And with bail reform, it’s like catch and release — the police don’t even bother coming down to make arrests now, because they figure that the guy is going to be back out on the street the next day anyway. So the management is not interested in, for example, spending money on improved security systems, when they can’t make money off rent and the cops aren’t bothering to make arrests anyway.”

His business started opening up again in June, and by the time of our interview, it was about 80% of the usual rate. Charach was also hopeful that a pandemic-inspired interest in hands-free security systems, like automatic doors and locks, which have higher profit margins, would invigorate the industry.

One positive of the shutdown and quarantine, Ari said, is that he, his wife and their three children enjoyed spending all that time together. The children even expressed disappointed when their father went back to work.

Now: Charach’s business is now better than it was before the lockdown.

Ari Charach spending quality time with family.

Baruch Hashem, I am at 110% of what I was before the pandemic,” Charach says. Asked why he believes that is, Charach replies, “I don’t know. Maybe I prayed harder,” then adds, “There’s no particular skill I’ve gotten that would have given me more work,” and that the thing he’s done differently between this year and last year is only that “I started learning Chovos Halevavos.”

Charach does find that people are indeed more interested in automated security systems, “particularly with newer constructions, where it is mandatory to have ADA compliance, with automatic door opening, etc.”

As for landlords’ lack of interest last year in upgrading security systems, Charach says “now it seems like it’s the other way around. Landlords are being forced to upgrade security. The tenants are insisting on it.”

As for that family time? Charach says that’s something he still does his best to maintain.

“I work on that on a daily basis. On most days now, I come home earlier than I used to before the pandemic.”

Nechemia Kaplan, owner of Beep Beep Auto School in Boro Park

Original interview published: August 5, 2020

Then: Beep Beep was shut down until Phase 3, on July 6, 2020, when auto schools were allowed to resume giving lessons. But lessons could only be given to those students who had already passed their permit test. Permit tests were not given until Phase 4, on July 20. There was a huge backlog of students waiting for permit tests; some Brooklynites were traveling 130 miles to get a test in Hudson, New York.

Road tests had resumed, though there was little demand — since five-hour classes were not yet being given, the only students who could take road tests were those who had already gotten their permit and taken the five-hour class prior to the shutdown.

On the day of our interview, the DMV informed auto schools that they could start giving a five-hour class. “I imagine that’ll result in demand for road tests going up,” Kaplan said.

Beep Beep’s driving lessons were running at full capacity; all seven cars and seven instructors had a full slate of students.

Nechemia Kaplan

Now: Since the spring of 2021, the permit test has also been available online, though students still have to go to the DMV to show documents, which could be a two- to three-week wait.

The five-hour classes are continuing online, and the auto schools can give them over Zoom and still make money off those.

For driving lessons and road tests, “there’s been a crazy backlog, and now it’s exploding,” Kaplan says. “Everything was shut down for so long, and now everyone’s trying to get a license at the same time.”

There has been a continuous uptick in demand since last summer, and it has gotten even more intense recently, as bein hazmanim has always been a popular time for driving lessons and road tests.

“Right now,” Kaplan says, “it’s harder to get into Beep Beep than it is to get into Brisk.”

While there has been a major surge in applicants, two of Beep Beep’s driving instructors left because they moved to Lakewood. Now there are only five instructors, and two of his cars are idle. Kaplan has been unable to find new driving instructors; he placed an ad online once and got only one response. He believes government’s increased unemployment payments are partly to blame.

“No one’s motivated to work; no one wants to work hard.”

With the current wait time for road tests at eight to nine weeks, there is an increased demand for rush road tests, one of Beep Beep’s specialties: if a student wants to get a road test quickly, for an extra fee Kaplan monitors the DMV database and grabs one when another road test applicant cancels.

“If a teenager fails a road test, they’re not going to wait two months for another test. They’ll just pay the fee and get another one right away.”

Though he acknowledges that “it’s a little frustrating that I can’t find more instructors,” Kaplan says there is a good vibe at the office. “We’re very happy. Our employees are as full as they want to be. No one’s desperate for work; they have all the work they want. And I feel fortunate to have such an awesome team. They not only do a great job, but are also a pleasure to work with.”

And with the extra fee from the rush road tests, as well as the online five-hour classes that he can now offer to students across the state, Kaplan says he is earning no less than he did when he had all seven cars on the road.

“I see that Hashem can provide the same parnassah with five cars as He did with seven.”

Google Maps

Uri Nagel, owner of Monsey Housewares

Original interview published: August 12, 2020

Then: While hardware stores were always deemed essential and Monsey Housewares remained open throughout the pandemic, its business was affected.

Pesach is generally a time when families buy large pots to cook for many relatives; but since people were remaining home alone, they wanted small pots. The store and companies were not prepared for the surge in demand for small pots, so Monsey Housewares had lots of large pots it couldn’t sell, and lots of demand for small pots it didn’t have.

Some Monsey Housewares workers contracted COVID, and others were too afraid to come to work, so the store was short-staffed. And it could not find new workers, either, which Mr. Nagel attributed to large unemployment checks handed out by the government. At the time of our interview, all his workers had returned, though his business was still affected. The banning of sleepaway camps meant extra sales for backyard camp items like oak tags, but a reduction in sales of camp items like clip-on fans, laundry bags, flashlights and camping chairs.

Anyway, he said, “we couldn’t get certain items in stock, so even if people had wanted to buy it, we wouldn’t have had it available. Like the set of three plastic drawers which many kids use in camp — the company that makes those, Sterilite, had shut its factory for eight or 10 weeks.”

While the pandemic led to increased sales of items like crayons and jump ropes that kids could use to keep themselves occupied at home, there were many houseware products that became expensive and/or hard to find — including certain crockpots, ladles, mashers and spatulas — starting when then-President Donald Trump enacted tariffs on China, and exacerbated by the factory shutdown in America and around the world during the pandemic.

At the time, Mr. Nagel said distributors were telling him it would be at least another six months until things were back to normal.

Now: Things are not quite back to normal, though overall, Mr. Nagel says his business is earning about as much as it did before the pandemic.

More people went to hotels for Shavuos this year than last year, so there was less of a demand for Yom Tov and cooking supplies. But more people are taking summer vacations this year, so there’s increased demand for vacation-related supplies, like ice packs and insulated bags.

One of his employees has left, and Mr. Nagel has been unable to find a replacement. Mr. Nagel blames unemployment benefits.

“People aren’t looking to work if they can sit at home with their feet on the table,” he says. “And if you find someone, they want a lot of money.”

And there is still a serious shortage of certain items.

“There’s a company in America that sells me plastic that people purchase by the yard. They can’t fill my orders because they don’t have workers to roll it in their warehouse. And they tell me also that they can’t find workers because of the unemployment benefits.”

The pandemic shut down factories across the world, leading to a slowdown in production at a time of reduced demand. But once the economy opened, the factories could not produce enough to meet the surge in demand.

And shipping costs are sky-high.

“Before COVID it cost $2,500 to $2,700 to bring a container from China. Now it’s $20,000. So even if you’re getting goods, the prices are way out of whack.”

In addition to the increased demand and lack of workers, Mr. Nagel says he believes it has “much more to do with politics. I think it has to do a lot with the governments not getting along and things like that. China is not buying a lot of American goods. So the containers are going back to China empty. That’s one reason they are charging so much to send a container here.

“And as bad as the slowdown is from China, it’s even worse in Europe. The appliances from Europe, which are of a higher quality than China, are much harder to get a hold of now. There are still a lot of closures in Europe; the manufacturing has been very slow. Whatever goods become available are bought out very quickly.”

With some aspects better and others worse, Mr. Nagel says overall he is doing roughly the same amount of business as before the pandemic.

“We thank Hashem for whatever business we do,” he says, “and whatever is bashert, that’s what we have.”

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