In March of 2020, New Yorkers and countless others around the world collectively removed the word “normal” from their vocabularies, as it seemed the term might never ring true again. As our time quarantined, masked and socially distanced grew longer, an increasing number of headlines claimed that we were beginning to grow comfortable in our “new normal” full of virtual classrooms, Zoom parties and designer face masks. But can this COVID-era reality ever truly be accepted as normal? On the anniversary of COVID-19 hitting New York, we asked East End community leaders in hospitality, history and the Arts to recall what their last “normal” activity was before the March 2020 shutdown and whether its “new normal” replacement actually feels normal yet.
“Literally, the last week before shutdown, I was in the city for The New Group Theater Gala, honoring one of our WHBPAC (Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center) board members. I still remember it was unseasonably warm walking through NYC up to the event space. Hugging familiar faces, hearing live music, enjoying the food, celebrating live theater—I could not have grasped then how much life would change, seemingly overnight.
“Now we celebrate on Zoom. I just had my baby shower on Zoom, and while we made the best of it and it was great to ‘see’ everyone, no, it’s still not normal. I miss hugging the people I care about, being near to them. And in terms of live theater, here at WHBPAC, we just livestreamed our Arts Academy performances. Kids and teens in masks, performing to an empty house, their parents watching at home—no, not normal. But it has been so good for our young people to be able to keep performing, and it makes certain that we will never take live performance for granted again. No amount of technology can replace the conversation between artist and audience!” —Julienne Penza-Boone, Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center
“On March 9, 2020, I was physically teaching in the classroom which would be the last day before the college shutdown. I missed the interaction and engagement of being with my students.
“A year later, I’m still teaching and like many professors, teachers and parents, I had to pivot to the digital platforms. In some ways, I think tele-education will unfortunately be a part of our ‘new normal.’ This ‘new normal’ is awkward and unforgiving; it has problems and doesn’t serve all well or equally. Yet, I remain hopeful that we will overcome, just as we have many societal ills.” —Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, Eastville Community Historical Society
“I was in California visiting family at the exact moment the chaos started breaking loose. As the news cycles were talking fear of airlines discontinuing domestic flights we wondered if I would make my flight back to Long Island. Fortunately, our flight was the last one before service was stopped to MacArthur.
“I have since been back to California—three trips to date since March—and aside from the masks, the six feet apart rule, no snacks, packed flights, pushy flight attendants and really clean cabins, it all seemed ‘normal.'” —Steve Amaral, North Fork Chocolate Company
“One of the last ‘normal’ activities I recall doing before COVID struck to shut things down was being in rehearsal with actors and dancers in a shared space, making work to go before an audience. This has morphed into virtual meetings and rehearsals, performances and conversations and, occasionally, an outdoor, distanced and masked work session. This feels anything but ‘normal’—a word that, I feel, puts us to sleep—when theater making in this way. Theater folks are huggers, playful people, physically free and unfettered as a practice. So to not be able to touch, to move closely together, to yell, sing and breathe into the space between us, makes for a repressed and sad emotionality, which is hardly helpful to a craft where levity, joy and freedom are guiding forces for the art making.
“But all of this should not take away from the intense, imperative and striking learning at work here. A requirement for being a theater maker is flexibility, studying of our human reactions, emotions and honoring story and holding understanding of self. So all of this is quality, rich fodder for what we will be building in our world—the new ‘normal,’ if you will.” —Kate Mueth, Neo-Political Cowgirls
“Before this dreadful pandemic, I enjoyed dinners with lots of friends at home sharing some of the little wine treasures, library wines, good stories, a good laugh and making music together, or hosting Wölffer winemaker dinners at beautiful restaurants on the East End, in NYC or other U.S. states and countries…. Luckily, I am an essential worker, so I actually have not missed a single day being at the winery making and bottling the two best vintages we may have ever had—the 2019 and the 2020 DREAM vintages. The new normal? Well, luckily, we have a lot of fun at home—just my wife, my daughter and I—and we had five corona buddies with whom we could share this depressing time, and as a result, got through it all.” —Roman Roth, Wölffer Estate Vineyard
“On March 6 of last year, I had just started my new job at East End Arts and was preparing to take over as the new Education Director. The previous director had one final event, the Music Master Concert. This concert, which was held at the Indigo in Riverhead, was an absolutely stunning event, and the student talent along with the music mentor, Dr. Thomas Manuel, was amazing. I was so excited to meet some of the families, board members and individuals who have been supporters of EEA for years, especially Harlan Fischer, the sponsor of the event. It was such a great way to start a job. Unfortunately, the following week we began preparations to close down the school and bring everything virtual.
“This year has been a bit crazy, to say the least, and you had to think outside the box to keep programs running. Fortunately, we had a great team at EEA and a supportive board, so things actually managed to work. Summer camp ran on campus; the new EEA Rocks performance program had a virtual concert; we collaborated with Peconic Ballet Theater and created a tribute to the essential workers; we collaborated with the LI Science Center and brought a new STEAM program to the community; our artist members volunteered their talent and time and created paintings for the healthcare staff at local hospitals; and we reached out to nine of our local high school art teachers and created the MLK Portrait Project…. All in all, it was a slow build, but we just kept trying.
“Well, Music Masters [started this month]. We moved it ahead a month to capture better weather, and our group of student musicians are still the top student musicians on the East End! The group was kept smaller this year, allowing for proper distancing…. Everyone will be kept safe by following all the protocols set by the state and this year the concert will be held outside at the Indigo in Riverhead, on Friday, April 16, 2021. Tickets will be available to the public if space allows. So basically, we have continued with everything—not letting this pandemic stop us. In fact, I think all in all, we have been more creative and productive at bringing the community art, music and theater and giving the kids, especially, a place to breathe.” —Kathleen Ruscick, East End Arts
“For me, the world of gathering together to see live theater, or listen to music or laugh with a comedian obviously came to a screeching halt. No music, no culture, no ability to truly experience that human connection. That was the last normal activity—just connecting on a real, visceral level.
“The truth is, that world of live performance hasn’t been replaced yet for me. I don’t think it ever will be replaceable. I need the human contact—the rush of that feeling before a show starts, the vibe of people getting in their places, the anticipation as the lights go down—all of it just forces me to shut out everything but that shared moment and time with those around me.
“Yes, we all watch programs virtually of performances. But it’s not the same. I would say the only thing I’ve really done is to search out live theater where I could find it since last March, including under a tent in Massachusetts this past summer and down in Florida on an outdoor pedestrian street this winter. Both were such powerful moments that I cried like a baby in the first five minutes of each and again at the end! I’m so hopeful that Bay Street will be allowed to offer an outdoor season this summer. Fingers crossed!” —Tracy Mitchell, Bay Street Theater
“I measure just about every life event by what gig I was playing at the time. On March 1 of last year, we had done what was supposed to be one of a series of shows at The Treehouse, a Lower East Side Manhattan performance space. We were looking forward to establishing the band at this venue, our first regular spot since the beloved Rodeo Bar had shut down due to escalating rent. Word had been spreading (for lack of a better term) about the approaching virus, and those in the know were already shunning hugs, kisses, shared microphones and pint glasses.
“Now, the surrealism continues, although there is hope and optimism in sight. Going from an average of 125 shows a year to around a dozen in 2020 hurt in every way imaginable—financial, musical, social…. I am actually quite fortunate in that I was able to do a series of online shows from home, sponsored by various East End libraries. These shows were a challenge, as I rarely play solo, but it kept my music out there and the feedback from viewers and fans was encouraging. To the point of ‘hope,’ well, I just booked a bunch of gigs for the summer that take place outdoors. I have noticed that club owners are considerably more able to adapt to the restrictions and are willing to make live music happen again.” —Gene Casey, Gene Casey & the Lone Sharks
“Our last ‘normal’ activity was a road trip to Charlottesville, VA on March 11, 2020. On March 13, we cut the visit short, got back in the car, drove 10 hours straight back to Long Island and have been here ever since—with a few trips to pick up mail and shovel some sidewalks in the city.
“One year later, we have adjusted to living in a beautiful place by the beach without visits from friends and family, without excursions or road trips, without events and exhibitions…. We have replaced the ‘getaway’ with short drives to Three Mile Harbor in Easthampton, exploring the Springs, poking around Montauk, meandering through the estate section of Southampton Village, walking the Quogue Wildlife Refufe and looking at the houses in the ‘bird street’ communities near there. Does it feel ‘normal?’ Sort of, but it’s also getting a bit lonely and tedious. We feel blessed to be in what seems to be a safe, healthy, welcoming, magnificent place with friends and families nearby, albeit not in person yet.” —Dede Gotthelf Moan, Southampton Inn
“Prior to the pandemic, for work, our art gallery hosted a juried group exhibit opening reception and then a gallery talk corresponding with that exhibition. Now, I miss that personal interaction and creative exchange between artists, jurors and the public. When businesses were allowed to reopen last summer, our gallery hosted the first successful in-person exhibition reception in the area, as we were able to utilize our outdoor property to assist the flow of visitors. For subsequent exhibition receptions, unfortunately weather became a dictating factor, and we were unable to present in-person events for the public.
“I really wouldn’t refer to anything as the “new normal,” as nothing feels normal for our business right now, however, our gallery is physically open for public visits with all new safety protocols in place. On a small scale, we are hosting some events online as well as having our exhibitions available for the public and collectors on our website. It’s definitely not normal, and we are looking to return to what it was before while implementing additional new aspects for our business that we are learning along the way from this time period. —Alex Ferrone, Alex Ferrone Gallery
“The Retreat had its Rock the Retreat event at The Stephen Talkhouse on March 5, 2020 and we had a full house with talented local bands (elected officials and celebrities) and guests. As usual, we were in close quarters having a fabulous time, speaking loudly to be heard by someone right next to us and sharing a packed room. There was even some dancing, and we had our arms around each other for some photo opportunities. That seems like another world and I miss it. It would be hard to replicate a Talkhouse night. I do have my playlists that I listen to inside my house or in my backyard, and that is the closest I get to that experience. Not close.” —Loretta Davis, The Retreat