New York City is not dead, but the Hamptons have sure had a good pandemic so far. From Southampton to Montauk, the exclusive holiday towns strung along the south fork of Long Island have been hopping all summer.
Unsurprisingly, many New Yorkers who can afford it are now planning to stay out east until coronavirus is no longer a threat. It’s a prospect that could change the Hamptons into a resort with no off-season, a prospect that sharply divides local opinion.
While some welcome the firehose of cash that Manhattanites bring, others fret that pressure on services could overwhelm local infrastructure and that, in particular, overcrowded schools could be forced to abandon in-person lessons, as surging enrollments make socially distanced lessons impossible.
It’s easy to guess which side of the white picket fence Dede Gotthelf will be found on. As the owner of the landmark Southampton Inn, she is adamant that “rounding out the seasonality” of the Hamptons is a “wonderful” thing, and a change that she and many other locals (she moved full time to the area seven years ago) have been advocating for for many years.
“I’m quite sure the local infrastructure can handle more people staying here full time,” she says, “Yes, a lot of the private schools are full up, but many of the other schools had been losing students. I think it’s all good.”
Gotthelf says there will be no “tumbleweed Tuesday” next week (as the day after Labor day is colloquially known) adding that she has several rooms already booked through to October, “and a couple of people who want to stay to the end of the year. People are not ready to go back to their former lives.”
The philanthropist Jean Shafiroff, who grew up on Long Island, is typical of many extremely wealthy New Yorkers, who would previously have only weekended at their Hamptons home. But, having spent the summer there this year, she is now contemplating extending her stay into the autumn months.
Shafiroff has been living full time at her Southampton home since the pandemic started, and has been developing the reach of her non-profit work via a TV show airing on LTV East Hampton Channel 20 called Successful Philanthropy (the Hamptons must surely be the only region with a local TV network featuring a show about how to give away money).
“I love New York and we will be moving back to the city when we can, but everything is up in the air. Like a lot of people, we are taking this pandemic week by week,” she says.
Shafiroff adds that right now it wouldn’t be practical to be in the city, what with having, “six adults, two children and five rescue dogs” under her roof.
Despite the handbrake on fundraising that a crowd size limit of 50 imposes, Shafiroff can certainly do more in the Hamptons, especially with her TV show, than she might in the city right now: “I happen to be hosting a little party tomorrow night for Southampton animal shelter,” the devoted animal activist told the Daily Beast Wednesday, “It’s just 50 people, cocktails at a restaurant.”
Restaurateurs such as Ian Duke, whose outlets include Union Sushi & Steak, Union Burger Bar and the long running favorite Southampton Social Club says he is planning on a busy fall: “New York City schools could go remote till January meaning people can stay out east. We won’t see a mass exodus this year after Labor day. I think that between a third and a half of all the people out here now will stay out here.
“A very big part of it is that so many New York city restaurants have not opened. Restaurants and nightlife are a huge part of what makes New York New York. When they are not open, there is little reason to come back. Every house on the market is either bought or rented.”
Lisa Maysonet, a realtor at Group Maysonet at Sotheby’s International Realty concurs, depicting a real estate market that makes Million Dollar Beach House look like the Teddy Bear’s picnic: “Month after month it is just going higher and higher. People who are renting are ending up buying. ‘Short notice’ should not be in your vocabulary, ‘patience’ and ‘perseverance’ are more the words to use.”
While many Hamptons traders and property owners are understandably delighted at the prospect of being hosed down year round with Manhattan money, some community stalwarts worry that the area’s infrastructure, in particular schools, will struggle to cope with a deluge of demanding city-folk who are accustomed to using their money to get what they want, whether that’s a three-bedroom cottage with a view of the water or all the guests at their party tested for COVID-19 at the door by an on-site doctor charging $500 a pop.
“The public schools in the area are pretty good,” said one Manhattanite, who is closing on a property in Bellport, to which he intends to move with his wife and child as soon as possible to escape the “menacing atmosphere” on New York’s city streets. “But you have to wonder how it will work out when all these city kids show up at the local public school on the first day of school. Some snobby New Yorker’s kids in a class with the kids of people who work for them; it’s a Netflix comedy waiting to happen.”
Many of the school districts serving the popular resort towns on Long Island are exceptionally good; parents rhapsodize about Quogue School in particular, which regularly tops national achievement tables. The school district is seeing an almost 50 percent increase in enrollment, from 85 children at the end of last school year to 135 students this fall.
Quogue Superintendent Jeffrey Ryvicker told ABC that most of the new families are people who have second homes in Quogue.
“They’ve always been a part of our community, just not the community that’s here during the school year,” he said. “To have them here year round now and to have all of our kids together is just really exciting for our school.”
However, many locals are concerned that swelling the ranks of suburban schools with big city evacuees is resulting in such massive increases in numbers that the schools may have to switch to remote teaching, a development hardly likely to ensure good vibes in the community.
Carissa Katz, managing editor at the East Hampton Star, told The Daily Beast: “The additional enrollment has meant some schools that were already teetering right at the edge can’t have in-person classes, they have to go remote, because so many more people have registered in the school.” Amagansett school, as the East Hampton Star has reported, has doubled its numbers from 75 to 150.
If swelling numbers of big city millionaires looking to insulate themselves from the pandemic force Long Island schools to abandon physical lessons, few predict the end result will be community harmony.
“People are not unwelcoming to the children,” says Katz, “But think how hard it is for a working parent of a 5- and 7-year-old to be told your kids are only going to be in school two days a week. You work, what do you do?”
For those who can afford it, of course, there are other options: Avenues, the world’s most expensive private school, announced earlier this year that it was opening a “studio campus” in East Hampton to facilitate blended (but largely remote) learning on Long Island.
While some parents have been sniffy about paying $48,000 for a Zoom-centric learning experience, many more have not; just this week, even before it had fully opened, Avenues said it will now admit students in first through 11th grades, as opposed to the previous fifth-through-11th structure, giving capacity for 30 to 45 additional students.
Katz fears there could be a return to the atmosphere of the spring, when supply chain issues affected local grocery stores, leaving people “really fearful” they would run out of basic necessities, which in turn led to “a closing of ranks, a feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
While many year rounders are hopeful “that having more people around will help support businesses,” Katz said, “there is also the question of how much can our infrastructure take? Year rounders breathe a sigh of relief when Labor Day comes; the grocery stores are less crowded, there are less traffic jams, you can get around.”
Locals, she says, are just nervous about what will happen when that release valve is not activated.
It takes money to enjoy much of what the Hamptons has to offer. But some things are free, and for those in search of cheaper delights, there is at least some good news in the extended season; staffing at four beaches—Indian Wells and Atlantic in Amagansett and Ditch Plain and Kirk Park in Montauk —has been extended to Sept. 20.
The deputy mayor of East Hampton village, Barbara Borsack is sanguine about the prospect of summer visitors staying on: “It remains to be seen how long they will stay. My feeling is when it is safer a lot of them will go back to the city. But if they own houses out here, they are certainly welcome to stay here. They pay taxes like everyone else, and we will do what we have to do to make it work. We may have to make adjustments, and if we do, we will.”