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Coronavirus resets summer season in the Hamptons

Barbara Layton, owner of Babette's in East Hampton, talks to Newsday about reopening in the coming weeks as the eatery celebrates its 25th anniversary. Credit: Randee Daddona

The South Fork beaches will be open this summer, but you may need a Hamptons address to visit them. The Hampton Jitney will run, but initially only for essential travel. And the star-studded East Hampton Artists & Writers Charity Softball Game is still on the calendar, but may be played without spectators for the first time in its 72-year history.

The COVID-19 pandemic can’t stop summer from coming to the Hamptons, but it might put a stop to jam-packed restaurants and bars, Main Streets crowded with boutique shoppers and elegant soirees.

City dwellers have filled up rental and second homes since the lockdown began in March, irritating locals who suddenly found bare grocery store shelves and feared their health system could become overwhelmed.

As Memorial Day approaches, it remains to be seen how the population’s shopping, dining and entertaining habits will be affected by the social distancing guidelines, face mask requirements and other measures meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Business owners who rely on the season between Memorial Day and Labor Day to carry them through the rest of the year are adjusting — offering more takeout instead of sit-down service, canceling major fundraisers, closing spas and pools — to offer the high-society social experience of a summer out east.

“You are not going to see formal events where you will have the long, beautiful Hamptons farm tables with the twinkling lights. That’s not happening,” said event planner Victoria Dubin, who typically plans six to eight summer Hamptons parties a year. “But there are a lot of creative concepts. We are exploring all options to entertain people safely.”

For Dubin’s clients, that could mean smaller parties with fewer guests and serving meals in branded boxes when restrictions ease.

From restaurants to charities to party planners, businesses and organizations on the South Fork will have to adapt to make it through the season.

Here’s a look at the start to summer 2020.

BEACHES

Many of the South Fork’s beaches will be open this year, but won’t welcome the masses.

Southampton Town plans to staff just three of its beaches initially — Long Beach in Sag Harbor, Sagg Main in Bridgehampton and Ponquogue in Hampton Bays. Day passes for nonresidents will not be sold, at least not initially.

Beachgoers will be required to wear a face mask while on pavilions or walkways, but not if they are sun bathing and can maintain a 6-foot distance from others, said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. Bathrooms will be sanitized every two hours and picnic tables will be removed from public areas.

“It’s a major asset to the South Fork, it’s something we live for,” Schneiderman said of the beaches. “To not allow that when it certainly can be enjoyed safely, I think the public would be very upset.”

Southampton Village, which operates perennially top-rated Coopers Beach, will also initially only open its beaches to residents.

Mayor Jesse Warren said the bathrooms at Coopers will be cleaned every 30 to 60 minutes, the village is pricing out touchless sinks and showers, and outdoor seating has been removed.

Warren noted daily and out-of-town season beach passes bring in about $1 million in annual revenue, which the village will lose this season.

East Hampton Town is also not selling passes to nonresidents, and plans to initially staff lifeguards at Indian Wells and Atlantic Avenue in Amagansett, and South Edison and Ditch Plains in Montauk on weekends.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the popular Cupsogue Beach in West Hampton Dunes will be open only to Suffolk residents.

RESTAURANTS

Losing Memorial Day weekend diners will sting for restaurants in the Hamptons, where dining out can be as much about being seen as the locally sourced fresh dishes.

On-premise restaurant dining is included in Phase 3 of New York’s reopening plan. The state hasn’t offered a concrete timeline for when that will be, but restaurateurs are planning for an early July restart.

Babette’s in East Hampton, known for its colorfully plated health-conscious food, snug seating inside and the occasional celebrity sighting, has offered takeout only for the first time in its 25-year history. To-go sales help but aren't enough, said owner Barbara Layton. The restaurant has taken to GoFundMe to ask for help meeting its operating expenses.

“Is it [takeout] a sustainable model right now? Absolutely not,” Layton said. “Not for me. Not for anyone.”

Still, restaurant owners expect it to remain a large part of their business this summer after dining-in resumes as people feel comfortable dining out. Adaptation will be key, Layton said, as business owners try to preserve the South Fork experience.

“I don’t think [The] 1770 House is the first place you think of for takeout food … so we’ve adapted our menu for it,” said Carol Covell, general manager of the East Hampton restaurant.

Restaurant owners said businesses will have to look to increase outdoor seating this summer if the state mandates reduced restaurant capacity. Those who already have ample space for al fresco dining will be at an advantage this summer.

“We are definitely where people go for the experience, but we’re really, really lucky we have outdoor space,” Covell said.

CHARITY GALAS

Summer cocktail fundraisers on lush lawns have long been a big source of revenue for East End charities. Without them this summer, nonprofits are leaning toward direct fundraising and virtual fundraisers to meet operating expenses.

The Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton has already canceled its family night carnival, which draws about 700 people and is the museum’s largest annual fundraiser, said president Steve Long. The organization has instead relied on its network to fundraise directly.

The pandemic could alter how money is raised out east.

“Everybody knows event-based fundraising is the most inefficient way to raise support for nonprofit organizations, but it’s the way fundraising has always been done [out east],” Long said.

The children’s museum has remained closed during the coronavirus outbreak, as museums are in Phase 4 of New York’s reopening plan. It has become a food pantry serving about 100 families dealing with food insecurity amid the pandemic.

“We discovered there was incredible unemployment, there was tremendous food insecurity and we decided we needed to do something about that,” Long said.

The Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in East Quogue is still hoping it can hold its Get Wild event in August, often attended by celebrities such as Beth Stern and Nicky Hilton. The event brings in about one-third of its annual budget, said office manager Amanda Daley.

East End Hospice has canceled its summer fundraising events, including its June gala at a private estate in Quogue. The party brought in about $500,000 last year and the organization relies on philanthropy to raise about 20% of its $9 million annual budget, said CEO Mary Crosby.

Instead the organization will provide virtual content thanking its donors and mail its annual event journal.

“Everybody loves a good party, but many donors give to us because they believe in our work, and I don’t think that will change this year,” Crosby said.

GETTING THERE

The Hampton Jitney is running on a limited schedule for essential travel only, for the time being.

“This is expected to change as NYC and Long Island’s pause status changes,” a company spokeswoman said in an email.

The Jitney is still accepting reservations online and does not ask passengers to specify their reason for travel. Buses will be cleaned and disinfected between trips, and the company is offering free travel to hospital workers.

Blade, which offers pay-by-the-seat helicopter flights between Manhattan and the Hamptons, will offer weekly delivery service for those staying out east to transport critical items and other goods.

“While we are prioritizing medications and other health-related items, you may request other deliveries for your extended stay, such as clothing, electronics, food for specialized diets, school materials, etc.,” the company states on its website.

Pilots and passengers will undergo touchless temperature checks and will be required to wear masks. The interior of the aircrafts will be electrostatically decontaminated.

Seaplane passengers will each have their own window seat, according to Blade’s website.

The Long Island Rail Road is still running on a reduced schedule and is not encouraging tourism travel. LIRR president Phillip Eng at a news conference Thursday reiterated that trains are for essential travel, not vacationers.

STAYING ...

Hotels and motels are considered essential businesses and plan to open, but with some modifications.

The Montauk Beach House hotel delayed its opening from May 1 until Memorial Day weekend and is instituting increased cleaning protocols, said CEO Larry Siedlick.

Hand sanitizer will be available in every room and in common areas, the housekeeping staff has been retrained in enhanced cleaning protocols and will wear personal protective equipment, and all frequently touched surfaces will be sanitized multiple times per day, according to the hotel’s website.

While the Montauk Beach House is typically about 50% to 75% booked for the season by Memorial Day, the number now stands at about 20% to 30%, Siedlick said, adding that he and his peers are optimistic people will come as state restrictions ease.

“Bookings usually start to pick up after January 15. That’s been virtually nonexistent until recently,” Siedlick said. “You can see when the weather is good people are going to come.”

Among the steps being taken by nearby Gurney’s are complimentary masks and sanitizing wipes provided in guest rooms, in-room activities for children and sanitizing stations throughout the property, according to its website.

The spa, pools and fitness center are also closed.

... AND PLAYING

Cuomo has said no “attractive nuisances” will be allowed when the state begins reopening, which is unfortunate news for those looking to enjoy Hamptons landmarks and marquee events.

The long-awaited reopening of the Sag Harbor Cinema, heavily damaged in a December 2016 fire, was expected for Easter weekend but has since been delayed. And the Montauk Lighthouse is closed until further notice, although droves of people have been descending on its grounds for months.

The Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, former home of abstract artist Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, is offering free virtual tours of the property by appointment online. If and when in-person tours do resume, they will likely be limited to six people at a time, said Pollock-Krasner House director Helen Harrison.

Organizers of the Hampton Classic Horse Show held every year in late August said they are proceeding as planned — for now.

“Naturally, we are closely monitoring the situation,” said event spokesman Marty Bauman. “Should a decision be made to cancel the event, we will announce it with a press release and on social media.”

In Riverhead, the gateway to the North and South forks, the popular Riverhead Aquarium will be closed, said Bryan Deluca, the aquarium’s executive director.

Aquarium officials are still awaiting word from Suffolk County officials on when they can reopen, Deluca said. Deluca noted that the nearby Treasure Cove Resort Marina on East Main Street will be open, and the aquarium’s outdoor bar and grill remains open for takeout orders. 

The East Hampton Artists & Writers Charity Softball Game, whose participants have included actor and Long Island native Alec Baldwin and former President Bill Clinton, is also still on the schedule, although spectators may not be allowed.

“We don’t know if we will have fans,” said event president Benito Vila. “Usually people are shoulder to shoulder. We are awaiting to hear from the village on what their guidelines will be.”

With Jean-Paul Salamanca

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