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The Montauk Problem

Wed, 07/15/2020 - 18:19


From early in the pandemic, it was clear that resort communities were different. Ski areas, which attract visitors and seasonal workers from across the United States and other countries, became hot spots for virus outbreaks. In Colorado, while the rest of the country was just becoming aware of the danger in March, numbers were already beginning to appear in places like Vail and Aspen. This was when New York officials might have taken steps to prevent a similar outbreak in our own resort towns, had attention not been so closely focused on the pressing crisis in and around New York City. Even deep into the crisis, local and county leaders were unprepared, expecting perhaps that summer crowds would not materialize. We know now that was a false hope.

The apparent sense of impunity among visitors to Long Island beach communities from Fire Island to Montauk has been eye-opening. Masks intended to stop the spread of the virus have been rare in these places, both during the day and especially at night, in bars and at private parties. But families, too, appeared not to heed the warnings. In Montauk, maskless groups of young, old, and in-between visitors can be found nearly wherever you look. Warnings on shop doors are ignored, and young, mask-wearing staff are too timid to ask customers to comply or get out. Across Suffolk County, this month’s increase in Covid-19 cases has been notable among young adults, just the sort of people whose sense of immortality can lead them to making the wrong decisions. Now, with the resumption of indoor dining in restaurants, the risk is only heightened.

A frustrated County Executive Steve Bellone this week threatened stricter enforcement. This is well-intentioned, but the question is who would actually do the enforcing. Local police already have more than enough to deal with; code enforcement is not able to shut down such active events as house parties, and fire marshals are few and similarly not empowered to handle infectious disease threats.  The New York State Liquor Authority could step in where commercial establishments are concerned, but so far it has not been involved in controlling resort crowds in a meaningful way.

What the precise solution is we do not know, but it will need to involve officials able to act quickly and arrests of individuals who break the rules. The so-called “social host” laws concerning under-age drinking could be a model for discouraging events at which the risk of the virus spreading is high.


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