Several Star readers have commented about signs put up at the roadside in several places by the Town of East Hampton warning about Covid-19. Why, their question has been, did the signs say that face masks or coverings are required, when, in fact, the state order is a bit more subtle. Others have called us to complain that while their business (construction) has been shut down, others (surf lessons) have carried on unabated. Officials take away park benches and limit access to beach lots to every other parking space, but in the business districts no such changes have been imposed.
Confusion is the order of the day in many aspects of the virus response. A statewide mandate, such as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s New York on Pause executive order, might be too broad, with rules that make sense in suburban areas not appropriate for cities or vice versa. As far as hospitalizations and community-level advice go, the East End is dependent on the county, which, by necessity is more concerned with the coronavirus hot spots elsewhere. At a local level it is fair to conclude that no one is in charge, at least medically.
This was not the case in the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, when the town had an appointed health officer who was a respected and experienced doctor whose only interest was keeping his community safe. The health officer had the power to close attractions, like the East Hampton movie house. He could also order a temporary hospital built and impose or lift restrictions on movement. Instead, today, New Yorkers wait on the governor’s office, which issues confusing rules, then reissues yet-more-confusing clarifications.
A more locally responsive, medically trained voice of authority could be better able to enforce recommendations aimed at saving lives, while at the same time gauging what kinds of activity, commercial and recreational, are adequately safe. In the absence of that kind of specific decision making, we cannot be entirely confident if the measures being taken to protect us from spreading the virus are appropriate to our specific conditions here.
For example, could East End restaurants welcome seated guests right now, provided there is not table service? Could residential construction carry on safely, given the scale and spacing of projects, on the South Fork anyway? Why should retail shops, which tend to have limited foot traffic this time of the year, not be allowed one or two patrons inside at a time? Are orders that make sense in more densely populated areas even applicable here? With the current government structure — heavily centralized and remote from East End concerns — we really do not know the answers.
To the extent possible, the board in our towns and incorporated villages should each appoint health officers, if only in an advisory role. This crisis of life and death clearly calls for professional expertise from individuals working in the health fields. It is not a moment for unvetted and contradictory dictates from Albany or Hauppauge. As with medicine itself, the closer a doctor gets to understanding the problem, the better the outcome for the patient.