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In the Hamptons, coronavirus heightens tensions

The spread of COVID-19 has exposed divides between second-home owners and year-round residents

I could hear the traffic from my backyard. Ten days before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the March 22 stay-at-home mandate, flocks of New York City residents were relocating to the Hamptons, to second homes and early-season rentals, where they were, before the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis was exposed, partying at bars and restaurants, and emptying stores of everything they carried.

The Hamptons has one hospital for approximately 120 square miles of real estate, too few beds and personnel to accommodate a widespread health crisis if we’re at high-season numbers. What began as a medical problem has become a problem of real estate, too. Even year-round Hamptons residents depend, in many ways, on wealth—people in the construction industry build homes for the wealthy, and landscapers make the bulk of their income from tending to properties owned by second-home owners. (My own husband has spent his career working as an estate manager and chief of staff for high-net-worth families.) But the spread of COVID-19 has exposed and heightened tensions between wealthy homeowners and year-round residents.

“People with wealth come out here, and they spend money, but they also make wealth available for the people year-round,” says Simon Harrison, who has been a broker in Sag Harbor for 32 years. “There are wings of our hospitals that are all sponsored by some wealthy people.”

As COVID-19 placed a stranglehold on New York in March, there were rumblings among community members that people who had been exposed to the virus were coming out to the Hamptons from the city against medical advice. On March 18, Arielle Charnas, the 32-year-old influencer and founder of Something Navy, a fashion and lifestyle brand, announced that she had tested positive for coronavirus. “This morning, I learned that I tested positive for COVID-19,” she wrote on a public Instagram post. That post was made from her apartment in New York City. Eight days later, on March 26, Charnas posted a photo of herself outside of her Hamptons home, along with the caption, “Fresh air.” That post, which received much criticism, has since been deleted.

Following her brush with controversy, Charnas has not posted additional Instagram stories, which automatically disappear after 24 hours, but, as recently as March 31, her stories showed her and her family in the Hamptons. She also removed a late-March, post-diagnosis Instagram photo, in which she and her young daughter are seen holding hands and walking outside in the Hamptons, wearing coats over pajamas. Medical professionals recommend a 14-day quarantine as the minimum precaution to prevent the spread of the disease. After receiving criticism for her posts, Charnas published a statement on the Something Navy website saying she and her family had only left New York City after their symptoms had improved and they had consulted with doctors. Charnas did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.

Other stories like this one have circulated throughout the community (many of them without confirmation). Underlying them is the fear that carriers of COVID-19 brought the disease to the Hamptons with them in early or mid-March, before adequate warnings or precautions were in place to protect the residents of eastern Long Island.

As of this writing, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital has somewhere between 160 and 180 beds available for emergent patients, according to a recent Southampton Press interview with hospital chief Robert Chaloner. That number is up from 94—the number of beds the hospital has under normal circumstances, since they have expanded the footprint to deal with the crisis—but even 180 beds is not enough to combat estimated infection rates if the population rises to its summer peak, which is well over 150,000. (Some estimates place it over 200,000.) Right now, we have every reason to believe that we are already in the middle of a high-season surge.

Hospital personnel have been directed not to speak to the press, and a recent article in Bloomberg alleges that hospitals are threatening to fire medical staff who make public details about working conditions and other virus-related issues. But on April 1, Suffolk County, the larger county into which the Hamptons falls, had just over 7,600 reported COVID-19 cases for 1.493 million Suffolk County residents. Four days later, on April 5, Suffolk had 13,129 reported cases.

Because of the population fluctuations between high and low season, not all of the emergency services personnel positions are full-time, paid positions. Unwell community members will be depending on an emergency services team that is partly volunteer, and a volunteer staff, comprising people who often have other jobs, that likely cannot shoulder the increasingly heavy burden. It’s a numbers game, and the result is a devolving relationship between city and country mice. Year-rounders watched an agreed-upon (if never warm) relationship turn fractious in recent weeks. Some say it has reached a tipping point.

Karina Magruder, who lives with her 3-year-old in the Hamptons town of Amagansett, works for a private company that does construction and development for high-end homes. Her income is directly tied to the wealth of the community, but she has been reconsidering her opinion about the balance between wealthy second-home owners and year-rounders. She describes stores that are sorely under-stocked, parking lots that are littered with used masks and latex gloves, and long lines for food, all the provenance of people who, she said, were not her usual March neighbors. “You have to wait in line at the grocery store that’s through the freezer aisle,” she says. “I have to go to three grocery stores to get what I need.” It bears noting, of course, that some of these shoppers could very well be locals, though Magruder did not recognize them as such.

Her local CVS, she says, lacked any kind of children’s medicine. She was haunted by the empty aisles, imagining the sick walking through, standing where the cough syrup once was, spreading the virus. Despite a warning issued by the White House on March 24, those leaving the city have not been, according to many, practicing any kind of 14-day quarantine or appreciable social distancing. “I’m in the Dunes [in Amagansett], which is the private beach, and they put signs up,” Magruder says. “The beaches were packed. Marine [Boulevard] here was just person after person. That really pretty day? Everyone was walking around. It was like Fifth Avenue.”

Alexandra Talty, a senior contributor for Forbes who is working on a book about the South Fork’s agrarian roots, grew up in Southampton. She has recently returned to the area after living in Lebanon. Upon her March 12 return, she voluntarily self-quarantined for 14 days, though she says that many others were not similarly complying. “It feels like a lot of people who are used to going to their beach are not necessarily listening to the social distancing rules,” she says. “It would be such a shame if we were all mandated to be inside our houses,” referring to looming beach closures, which could happen if people refuse to follow these rules.

The Hamptons, Talty says, is a rural area, with rural services, and cannot meet the demands of a health crisis with high-season population numbers. “We do not have the level of care that I think many of these second-home owners would expect,” she says. Talty, though a local, was not quick to blame seasonal residents for saturating the system. Although she believes that the problem is mounting—and possibly insurmountable—she also notes that some bad actors do not represent all visitors to the Hamptons. “I don’t like the idea of saying that everyone who [came from out of town] is bad.”

It’s hard to feel that sense of largesse, though, when your hospital bed is the one on the line, or when fate separates you from someone who had more resources and choices and chose to come to the Hamptons. In mid-March, some locals were still trying to take advantage of financial opportunities to be found in the situation. One email I received, on March 21, from a local real estate agent, read, “Owner Said Bring Me a Renter, NOW!!!” For $66,000, a wealthy urbanite could escape the dangers of the city until Memorial Day in East Hampton, all while enjoying a Jacuzzi, heated pool, steam shower, and private tennis court. The unspoken promise? If needed, you can also grab one of only 180 hospital beds.

The counterpoint is that taxpayers should have the right to access their homes. Full-stop. “I’m glad that they see this as a safe harbor,” journalist, author, and Wainscott resident Steven Gaines says. The wealthy are community members, too. They, too, deserve the fresh air and the comforts that extend beyond the congestion (figurative and literal) of New York City. As Simon Harrison says, “[T]his virus, like anything else, is an equalizer.”

Second-home owners, taxpayers, part-time residents—they love the Hamptons, too. Peter Levitt, who is in his mid-60s, splits his time between Westwood, New Jersey, and East Hampton; now he is in the Hamptons indefinitely. Levitt has asthma and also suffered a substantial stroke a few years ago, and he felt staying in his apartment in New Jersey meant higher risk in the era of COVID-19. His daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter are all in East Hampton. “Before I had a stroke, I had honestly convinced myself that I could live forever, if I put my mind to it,” he says. “When I had a stroke, it convinced me that I’m not going to live forever.” It also convinced him, he says, that he had as much right to be out in the Hamptons, capitalizing on the time he had with his family, as anybody else. “I feel the right to be close to them, as often as possible,” he says.

Coexistence is, to hear many tell it, still the goal. Local residents recognize the delicacy of circumstance, and many are hesitant to assign blame. When I reached out to community members for their thoughts on the relationship between locals and nonlocals through the public Facebook group Living with COVID-19, president of Strong Insurance Joshua Borsack wrote, “Please don’t sow discord between the year round residents and the vacationers/second homeowners. This community exists on a balance between those two communities. Without one there is not the other.” Borsack has since deleted that comment.

The debate wages on, both on Facebook and on Twitter. Many year-rounders bristle at the notion of playing nice with the perceived interlopers. “STOP COMING HERE,” wrote @meaghanmanzella on Twitter on April 1, along with the hashtags #quarantine, #hamptons, and an expletive, in reference to a TMZ article about a lack of social distancing at Hamptons beaches. It is driven, too, by further bad behavior, which locals discuss among themselves, both on and off social media.

On dedicated Facebook groups and individual threads among locals, there is a parting of ways regarding the best approach to handling these issues. In some ways, Joshua Borsack’s sentiment reflects the wider concern among many residents, which is that, despite worries about community welfare, the capacity to remain economically solvent diminishes if the influence of wealth disappears from the Hamptons. It’s a valid concern, and one that leaves local residents struggling to make this strange society work.

Some, like Steven Gaines, believe that year-round residents also bear some responsibility in the deepening class warfare. “One hundred years ago, the local people became complicit in the arrangement in having people come in from the city, live out here, eat their vegetables, make their money, so that they could get through the winter,” he says. “So, listen, there’s some responsibility for the fact that this is a second-home community, and that’s how it survives.”

Origin story notwithstanding, we are now at a crossroads. The latent strain between local and city dweller once came down to access. “There can be this feeling of not being able to do what you want in this place that you love,” Alexandra Talty says.

But we’re way beyond that now.

With resources thin, the argument is no longer over beach parking lots or at-capacity dining rooms at local restaurants. It is about a feeling of not being able to get what you need in a place where you live. That’s a battle that we, in the Hamptons, will fight from here on out.

Hannah Selinger is a freelance food, wine, and lifestyle writer and mother of two based in East Hampton, New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, United Airlines’ Hemispheres, Eater, Wine Enthusiast, The Daily Beast, Slate, Architectural Digest, and more. She is an IACP finalist for an award in Narrative Beverage Writing.

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