As summer began, Covid-19 prevention on the East End looked dangerously inadequate. On the ground, law enforcement was stretched to the limit, trying to assure basic public safety, but the police and fire marshals trying to keep a lid on things were not being adequately supported by those in charge of government, who — at the local, county, and state level, as in Washington — seem to be fooled by positive numbers, breathe a premature sigh of relief, and rush to shift the focus to reviving the economy. Officials have not prioritized the health of service-industry staff (such as the hardworking people who wait tables and wash glasses in bars and restaurants), first responders, residents — or visitors.
For all his tough talk, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has resisted requests from South Fork police departments to restrict the operating hours of clubs and restaurants to prevent excessively crowded — and, almost by definition, less than orderly — late-night gatherings. Instead, he has warned that any establishment found to be violating social-distancing rules under the New York on Pause order risks losing its license to serve alcohol. This is a good measure, too, but the problem is that by the time this referral to the state has been made, a hypothetical super-spreader event could already have happened.
You can’t keep social distance on a dance floor, and a maskless throng embracing and shouting out the lyrics to “Sweet Caroline,” as seen in one widely shared video from the Fourth of July weekend, is the perfect formula for one asymptomatic individual to infect dozens.
The big question is: How do you contact-trace a crowd of strangers who came together in such a dark and crowded setting? You probably can’t. Partiers disperse — back to New York City, New Jersey, some other Long Island town, who knows where — and when a contact-tracer calls, how many young partiers might mention the party, or know all those strangers’ names?
Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone, who this weekend said he saw contact tracing as the best way to determine where the problems had emerged —- after the fact — has also embraced this horse-after-the-cart approach. By the time contact tracing got all the way back to a Montauk nightspot, if it ever did, the virus would be widely distributed. Or, the it might travel the other direction, brought into Montauk and let loose in a crowd that was boogying or clustering around a bar, and spreading to staff, hotel workers, and so on. Covid-19 cases in Montauk have held steady at just 12 for weeks now. We want to keep it that way.
Local law enforcement and an attentive public already know where the risk of transmission is highest: where masks are not universally worn and social distancing not practiced. Nightspots fall squarely into that category. We read in the news that raves and clubs that remained open in Miami over the last few months may be responsible for much of the explosive growth of Covid-19 in Florida. To bars and restaurants add shared summerhouse rentals, which have been tacitly allowed to return in defiance of the law and common sense.
More must be done at the South Fork’s Town and Village Halls, as well as the county seat, to take a proactive, preventative approach. To sit back and wait for the worst to happen is to consign some unknown portion of the populace to illness or death. We, as the collective hosts, really do not want that on our hands.
East Hampton Town and Southampton Town, as resort communities, bear the responsibility for crowd-control in this moment. We cannot wait for Albany to scold us again or hand down a new law. In order for our local restaurants and bars to remain open with safe distancing, patrons need to remain seated. Period.