It is not surprising, given the human tendency to seek scapegoats, that year-round East End residents might direct their anxiety over the COVID-19 crisis toward the wave of people from away who washed in during the last week. Fanned by irresponsible speculation based on anecdotes and the internet, some among us objected loudly as unfamiliar faces plowed through supermarkets loading their shopping carts. The fear was that the new arrivals were scooping up all the essentials, leaving nothing for the locals.
Some residents joked about putting up a wall or blowing up the bridge over the Shinnecock Canal, while at the same time engaging in the panic-buying they accused the city folks of. But once the initial spree began to die down, most items returned to stores. The East End is far from starving, as we have noted before, even if out of cleaning products and worryingly low on toilet paper for the moment.
The truth is that from a groceries and household supplies perspective, East End stores and delivery systems are relatively well poised to deal with periods of excessive demand — as over a Fourth of July weekend. Where the sudden influx more legitimately raised an alarm is in the capacity of the region’s hospitals and emergency service personnel to cope with a predicted swell of virus cases. Related questions are about town-level preparedness, for example, whether local governments have stockpiles of masks, gloves, gowns, and medical supplies. Another concern is the focus of disaster preparedness; has it been too narrowly predicated on a direct strike by a powerful hurricane rather than other threats?
It is shocking that town residents and officials must depend on the county and state for medically based decision-making. During the 1918-19 flu pandemic, the Town of East Hampton had its own medical officer, who was given broad authority to close places of assembly and initiate setting up a temporary hospital to help meet the need for convalescent beds. This centralization of authority has left town and village officials with little more to do than send out directives delivered to them from above. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his staff have responded admirably, but if Albany had been dithering and indecisive, ground-level leaders would not have had a ready alternative with which to impose required measures to protect their populations.
The problem evident now is that the towns failed to calculate the cost of ever-increasing residential development. It has long been clear that in the critical areas of water supply, pollution, and emergency medical services the ultimate effects of growth have not been adequately anticipated. Less important, but still an example of lack of foresight, is high-season traffic and the shortage of parking. Given that the threat is now real and immediate, it has become clear that local government failed to prepare at all for what past experience and the scientific community said was inevitable.
It is not the fault of seasonal residents that they were allowed to build and buy houses at so high a concentration in relation to the landmass and scale of local infrastructure. It is their right as owners and renters to live where they please. It is also their right to arrive en masse and scramble to stock their empty summer or weekend houses with what they need to get though the next couple of weeks or months.
If there is anger to be directed anywhere, it should be toward the elected leaders and staff planners whose jobs it should have been to see a crisis coming.