For Ellen Wachtler, the choice between moving back to her Manhattan apartment or staying at her summer home on Dune Road in Westhampton Beach this fall was a no-brainer in the age of COVID-19.
"I’m not going anywhere," said Wachtler, who is retired but whose husband still commutes to the city one or two days a week. "I’ll be at my house 99% of the time."
The calculus for other Manhattanites is the same, and it’s providing a needed second wind for businesses across the East End that endured closures or severe restrictions through the spring. Faced with a city in the throes of new coronavirus hot spots, restaurant and entertainment closures and the prospect of pop-up restrictions, thousands are staying put on Long Island. Their reasons are manifold, and evolving, many say, as conditions in the city change, and could lead some to stay long term or even permanently.
Wachtler said the main reasons driving the change for her are safety and the quality of life on the Island. In the city, once she leaves the safe confines of her apartment, she can spend seven hours or more wearing a mask — in cabs, in stores, even on the street.
It's 'much more normal' out here
"In the city, in a cab or walking I wear a mask all the time," she said. "In hot weather it was brutal."
On Long Island, she wears a mask everywhere one is required, with car breaks in between.
"I feel like it’s definitely much more normal out here in the Hamptons," she said. "We went to dinner Saturday night" and dined comfortably outside, even though the restaurant was unusually crowded for the fall.
There are also bigger issues keeping her from New York City right now.
"For me it’s mostly safety," she said, noting deserted streets and an increase in homelessness. Many apartment buildings don’t allow delivery people in elevators.
Neighbors to either side of her are also spending more time in their Dune Road homes, and grown children of many friends and family members are spending time with parents, some abandoning city apartments entirely, she said.
"I have a few friends, and my kids' friends who were living in the city who gave up rentals, moved into their parents' houses and are now either renting here or in Westchester and are not going back to the city anymore," Wachtler said. "They are just done."
The changes are being felt all the way out to Montauk, where Paul Monte, president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce, said the uptick in school enrollment, occupied summer homes and business traffic remind him of the last time the community saw an upsurge in residents.
"The last time we saw something like this was after 9/11, we saw a huge influx of people come into the area, and I would say a good percentage of them decided to stay," Monte said. "With the remote working situation now and the ability to do schooling from home and things like that, I think we’ll probably see what we saw then, plus a little bit more deciding to stay, because it really is a beautiful place to live."
Monte put the uptick in beyond-summer residents in Montauk in the hundreds.
"We are seeing more and more people setting up homes and residences here, either in their summer homes which they would normally not be using in the offseason, [or] renting homes for their families out here," Monte said. Montauk "has always been a haven for people to escape to."
"The fact that people are going to stick around longer now is going to be very helpful to the business community obviously, because we did lose a portion of the spring business," he said.
The city is like 'bread without peanut butter or jelly'
One Manhattan resident who has made the decision to turn his normal summer in the Hamptons to full-time is Marc Bash, who owns Cafe Luka on the Upper East Side. Bash and his wife and two sons typically spend summers and holidays in Westhampton and return full time to their New York City apartment just after Labor Day. This year it was out of the question.
"Manhattan has turned out to be a place where you can't walk and feel safe," he said. "Right now, unfortunately, it's not a place to allow my kids to walk out and walk to school." Even taking an elevator in his apartment building poses new health threats that don't exist on the East End. "It's just not a comforting situation going into an elevator with someone else," he said.
The family has had a Westhampton home for the past six years.
"It was pretty much our summer and holiday home, but it's our permanent home right now, until we can figure out the next move — either a move or totally settling in." He commutes to New York City six days a week, leaving at 5 a.m. and sometimes working late into the night.
Westhampton, meanwhile, has been welcoming.
"It's a family-friendly town and a nice place to be raising your kids," he said. "It's got an excellent school system and I can't say how nice people have been. It's a breath of fresh air."
He says he plans to assess his situation in a few months "and see where we are. I don't want to make anything permanent on anybody," he said. "Let's go week by week almost."
James Mallios, a co-owner of Calissa, a Greek restaurant in Water Mill, where he also co-owns a house, said he brought his family from their Manhattan apartment to the Hamptons in the spring to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic. He'd considered staying beyond the fall, he said, but contractual obligations for the children's Manhattan school led him to move the family back to the city for most of the week.
He still spends an average of three days a week in the Hamptons, tending to the restaurant that is now open seven days a week to cater to the influx of summer residents, compared to a typical four days in the fall. Friends and customers who are staying put in the Hamptons tell him it's not just the fact that they can work from home or get their children enrolled in East End schools that is keeping them out here.
"All the reasons to be in New York City aren't there," Mallios said. "New York City without Broadway and the restaurants is kind of weird. It's like peanut butter without jelly — it doesn't work. Actually, it's like bread without peanut butter or jelly."