No sooner were New York restaurants granted a reprieve from the Covid-19 lockdown did patrons come back in swarms for outdoor dining. But for many on the East End who had become used to hunkering down and ordering takeout, if at all, the return of crowds was an unsettling shock.
Greenport was filled with people over the weekend. In Montauk, a town fire marshal was called to Gurney’s Inn after a 911 report from someone concerned about social distances. The restaurants on the Napeague stretch were booming during Saturday and Sunday’s fine afternoons. Even Southampton Village had some of its old buzz. It was almost as if a certain halo of privilege would protect everyone, or so they must have thought. Without a doubt, the party was back on here, there, and everywhere, but whether it was safe was another question.
One reader described the scene at one Montauk hot spot as troubling, to say the least with patrons elbow to elbow at the bar and a server not wearing a mask or gloves — on Monday afternoon. At another place in Montauk, while the outdoor tables might have been six feet apart, as required, diners at adjacent tables were separated by less than an arm’s length when all the seats were filled, estimated from the backs of their heads.
The timing of these anecdotes was striking given that the reopening here has been simultaneous with frightening new scientific research about the virus’s transmission. The most important conclusions from the studies is that social distancing alone is not enough and that face coverings are the determining factor in how widely Covid-19 travels through a population. Other work has demonstrated that the length of time tiny infectious particles can linger in the air is as much as six hours, much longer than had been initially thought, and that even flushing a toilet can atomize the virus.
By necessity, restaurant patrons must take off their masks in order to eat or drink. And they share bathrooms, too. This absolutely puts staff and other diners at risk.
One of the unknowns in a renewed outbreak would be whether the South Fork’s casual approach to reopening semipublic spaces is a cause. Because of the way Suffolk reports Covid-19 cases, people who might have contracted the virus here would not be reflected in its daily reports if their primary residence were outside of the county. This would bring the new contact tracing system into the picture, though, by then, a person spreading the disease could be nearly impossible to find. Given the highly mobile nature of many Hamptons visitors, a desire to share some summer fun might create an epidemiologic nightmare.
“Sound science,” one recent and alarming paper’s authors wrote, “is essential in decision-making for the current and future public health pandemics.” The authors went on: “Notably, the recommended physical separation for social distancing is beneficial to prevent direct contact transmission but is insufficient (without face masks) to prevent inhalation of virus bearing aerosols. . . .”
Unfortunately, East Hampton and Southampton officials do not appear to be sufficiently concerned. Nor are they attacking the problem with anything resembling science.
After Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo threatened Monday to clamp down on Manhattan and the Hamptons after reports of lax compliance, the reaction here was defiant. This was just wrong. It is one thing to be eager to get restaurants back in business; it is another to do so by putting people’s health in danger. Can local town supervisors, for example, be entirely confident that adequate safeguards are being followed when scenes from the past weekend indicate otherwise?
Rather than self-serving braggadocio in pushing back at the governor’s warning, leaders on the ground here during this crisis must constantly ask themselves, “How can we do better?”