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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Town supervisors on front lines of anti-virus battle 

Customers outside the Community Market on Depot Road

Customers outside the Community Market on Depot Road in Huntington Station on Wednesday. Credit: James Carbone

"We saw that people were gathering," Edward Romaine, Brookhaven Town supervisor, was saying last week.

"I had to close the parks and the beaches, the parking lots for the parks and the beaches," he recalled. "Before that, we had closed the playgrounds, the swing sets, tennis, basketball — because there are some people who are very thick and who don't get it."

The same thing happened in Huntington, where Supervisor Chad Lupinacci tightened things up by closing beach parking lots, too.

"We were getting reports of tailgating parties," he said in an interview.

Geographically, Brookhaven is larger than Nassau County.

Huntington, which until recently had the largest number of positive tests for COVID-19 in Suffolk, abuts Nassau, which has the largest number of positive tests and the largest number of COVID-19-related deaths on Long Island.

Romaine and Lupinacci, like Long Island's other supervisors and mayors, have been using what local authority they can to implement social distancing and other orders handed down by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

It hasn't always been easy.

Romaine said that just last week he had to dispatch a town worker to Fire Island, a portion of which is in Brookhaven.

"We had a building inspector over there, at least twice," he said. "That requires us to get a boat, to get him over there, and then to get him around to the various communities."

The inspector's job was to issue stop work orders — to enforce compliance with Cuomo's order banning nonessential construction.

That inspector was busy.

"I think yesterday or the day before, he issued 19 stop work orders," Romaine said Thursday.

How did the town learn about the nonessential building?

"We get complaints," Romaine said, noting that the number of people on Fire Island swelled with New Yorkers seeking to avoid the city.

Contractors aren't the only issue.

"We have so much area to cover, the town is so big, that residents who call in are a help because there's no way we can be everywhere and see everything," Romaine said.

In Huntington, safety officers and other town employees patrol throughout the town — often in response to complaints about large gatherings, or matters such as suspected price gouging.

"It's important for us to know," Lupinacci said, "so we know where to send out our teams to help break up, or make sure people are following the rules."

So far, both supervisors said, officials have seen voluntary compliance.

"For the most part, people heed the warnings and cooperate," Lupinacci said.

Cuomo last week increased fines for social distancing violations to up to $1,000.

But Romaine said he is awaiting clarification on how tickets would be handled because of the pandemic's impact on the state court system. He also wants guidance on how Brookhaven would deal with ticketing under discovery requirements in the state's new criminal justice laws.

For Romaine, the quest to keep Brookhaven residents safe has become personal.

He knows residents who have been felled by COVID-19.

Lupinacci said he has been working with Huntington Station residents, who have been particularly hard-hit by the virus, to increase access to testing.

Recently, he recorded a message to town residents in Spanish; this week, a portion of his update to town residents was in Spanish as well.

"That was the first time I ever spoke Spanish in my life," said Lupinacci, who said he speaks Italian. "It took a little while, and some dress rehearsals, but I got it done."

The town's response to the pandemic, he said, "has given me a new look in terms of the function of government."
And that's before Long Island's municipalities have to deal with budgets and whatever else comes next.

Suffolk's supervisors, and County Executive Steve Bellone or his staff, gather together on a conference call daily.

"We ask questions and try to get whatever clarifications we need to do what needs to be done," Romaine said.

"We have a lot of issues and we're fighting daily for our constituents and this is something that will continue, every single day, every single minute," Romaine said. "Believe me."

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