This isn’t a seemly time to say we told you so, but now that a global pandemic threatens lives and livelihoods, it should finally be obvious that East Hampton Town has gone far over capacity in terms of land, infrastructure, and hospital services.
The fact that we as a community have to contend with far more people than we can comfortably carry on our shoulders was made amply clear last week when the East Hampton Town Board dispatched a panicked letter begging the state to shut the door on tourist stays.
The problem began with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s New York on Pause executive order, which listed hotels and other places of accommodation as essential and, therefore, permitted to welcome guests while much of the rest of the economy was brought to a screeching halt.
The state offered no nuance, no rules, no guidance about where —- and for whom —- hotels could operate, and there was nothing to indicate that the governor’s office had even considered what might happen to resort areas and tourist centers when summer arrived. Mr. Cuomo and his team are at fault in this, but so, too, are East Hampton Town officials, who only now, with Memorial Day weekend just days away, seem to have woken up to the danger of the situation.
East Hampton Town does not have a functional emergency management plan for this pandemic, and could not provide one after multiple requests. The manure hit the fan nearly three months ago, but we have seen no evidence that anyone at the town level was talking seriously about contingencies for hotels or other public attractions before last week. Even today, incredibly, the town’s Office of Emergency Preparedness remains focused entirely on tropical storms, hurricanes, and flooding.
Compounding this mess has been a near-total consolidation of authority by the town supervisor, who, with the town chief of police and the head of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, assumed control in March under a “unified incident command structure” and have refused to relinquish it. This assumption of emergency powers might have been all well and good had the supervisor used that power to lead effectively.
Had these three officials —- all men, it is worth noting —- been willing to share decision making with the rest of the town board, at a minimum, the last-minute plea to the governor might have come weeks, if not months ago. Bluntly put, a plan should have been in place by now to cope with the anticipated arrival of crowds, particularly in Montauk.
Residents have, since mid-March, been airing their mounting worries about an overwhelming influx of seasonal visitors, and its inevitable impact on emergency services, social distancing, beach access, and so on, but no one in town leadership seems to have realized that summer was coming and begun building bulwarks against its risks.
Three things must happen now: the restoration of town board leadership, a reshuffling of the Office of Emergency Preparedness to better reflect the nature of the Covid-19 challenges, and the development of a crowd-control strategy for the July and August peak season. There is precious little time left for this crucial change of course, but it has to happen. Lives are at stake.