Two years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic became painfully clear when restaurants across New York State were restricted to takeout only, taking a bite out of the East End’s hospitality industry.
But now that many COVID-19 mandates — from requirements to wear masks in eateries to schools, among other orders that were enacted in March 2020, lifted and then reinstated amid the recent winter surge — have been relaxed, local leaders in the Hamptons and on the North Fork are hopeful that this spring and summer may see an even stronger comeback than last year.
“I’m being guardedly optimistic here, but I think COVID is in the rearview mirror just in time for spring,” said Steve Haweeli, president of WordHampton Public Relations and the LI Restaurant and Hospitality Group, which serves as the spokesman for numerous East End eateries. “I feel a sense of relief — and I’m sure restauranteurs are, too — inasmuch as there’s still an air of caution.”
Across the region and beyond, some lingering mandates remain in effect in a few places, such as on the Long Island Rail Road, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise keeping mask orders in place for mass transit. Certain people voluntarily continue masking up as a precautionary measure, often because they live with someone who has a weak immune system and is more susceptible to the virus. The trend comes as the number of new cases diagnosed daily continues to decline locally and vaccination rates remain high.
Long Island had a 1.67% seven-day average percentage of positive test results reported over the last three days as of March 14, according to the latest state Department of Health data available as of press time, down from record-breaking daily infections for the county as recently as January. More than 1.9 million Long Islanders had completed a COVID-19 vaccine series by the same date, state officials said.
“As we continue to navigate our new normal, with progress being made every day, it is still important to ensure that our residents, including our most vulnerable populations, have access to all of the tools necessary to fight this virus and keep themselves safe,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who is among local officials continuing to offer free at-home COVID-19 test kits for residents. “Testing plays a vital role in keeping this virus under control and will be absolutely critical as we begin to live with this virus as part of our everyday lives.”
The region has come a long way since the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Suffolk was reported on March 8, 2020 and the county’s first two deaths both came on March 16, 2020. The earliest known cluster of cases emerged at the Peconic Landing retirement home in Greenport, where seniors proved among the most vulnerable.
The difficulty of keeping the virus from spreading in a facility where people live in close proximity proved most challenging. Just ask Suffolk County Sheriff Errol D. Toulon Jr., who oversees the county jail in Riverhead and breathed a sigh of relief that the numbers have come down.
“I am happy to say that on this two-year milestone we currently have zero COVID-19 inmate or staff cases,” he said. “Through the many surges of this virus our incredible correction officers and deputy sheriffs have been on the front lines of this pandemic, working diligently to keep our staff, inmates and communities safe. No matter how much time passes, we must always continue to honor the many people who went above and beyond their call of duty to serve our communities — especially our hardworking health care professionals, including our corrections medical staff, and our first responders.”
Despite the progress made, the debate over the remaining mandates continues. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the Republican and Conservative nominee for governor trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, participated in an Unmask Our Toddlers Rally in Manhattan on March 7 against the continued masking of toddlers in Pre-K and daycare.
Other local officials were pleased with the governor’s lifting of many statewide mask mandates last month.
“I applaud the governor’s decision to lift the current statewide requirement on masks in schools,” said state Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor). “With the spread of the virus now at low levels, this decision came at a time that is safe and in accordance with the expertise of our state and nation’s leading scientists. As the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Local Governments, I believe that it is our duly elected local officials who have the best understanding of the unique needs of the communities in which they serve. With the lifting of this order, local governments, the level of government closest to the people, will rightfully be given the authority to decide what is in the best interests of our mutual constituents.”
East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc took the governor’s order and the declining infection rate as his cue to lift the mandate on wearing masks in town facilities.
“I am very pleased that we have reached this milestone,” he said, “and we look forward to resuming in-person meetings in the near future.”