Two residents said the Southold Town Police Department dismissed their requests to break up a retirement party last week for a member of the force that appears to have violated a state ban on large gatherings because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The party was held Friday at a Cutchogue tree farm owned by Southold Town police Sgt. Steven Zuhoski. Photos posted to social media depict dozens of guests who were not practicing social distancing and not wearing masks. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo relaxed restrictions last month, allowing gatherings to occur so long as no more than 10 people attend and they adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley wrote in an email Monday that he had no prior knowledge of the celebration, which occurred after the department held a traditional walkout ceremony for Zuhoski and two other retiring officers.
“Our department celebrated three retirements yesterday [Friday] afternoon with a traditional walkout ceremony at our headquarters,” Flatley wrote. “I don’t have any direct knowledge of what occurred at other celebrations after ours.”
Flatley told the Suffolk Times that there were no complaints to his department about the party. No mention of the incident appears in the weekly Southold Town police blotter, although the log lists several complaints about potential violations of the governor’s order. One report mentions an East Marion birthday party in which police were called and a resident was asked to turn down the music.
Zuhoski, a member of the force for nearly 24 years, downplayed the incident in a voicemail message Monday to Newsday.
“It was a private family party on private property closed to the public,” Zuhoski said, declining to elaborate further.
At least two people said they reported the incident to police Friday night and provided screen shots from their cellphones of their outgoing calls.
Laura Solinger, of Cutchogue, said she witnessed the gathering and called police twice. She said she drove past the venue several times and that there were 50 to 60 cars parked outside with an estimated 90 to 130 people at the party. She said she saw a DJ and what appeared to be a professional fireworks show — which residents said lasted for several minutes and could be heard in Southold, the next hamlet over.
She described the response as “dismissive” when she called to report the incident. She said she asked a department member to shut down the event and he replied “on whose orders.” She said “the governor’s.”
“There were huge fireworks; it was sort of like a wedding on the Fourth of July,” Solinger said. “It looked like a lot of fun. Any other time, it would have been fantastic, and I would have never called police. But these people will be the people walking around in King Kullen tomorrow.”
Daisy Rymer, a Tulane University student spending the summer at home in Southold, also reported the incident to police, but said she was not given an indication if they would follow up. She said it was upsetting that officers flouted the law they are charged to uphold.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Monday that the party was a personnel matter and declined to comment directly on the incident.
“I have a deep respect and am grateful for the people who go to work every day knowing they face the risk of COVID-19,” he said. “That gratitude doesn’t waiver.”
Russell said a town board member requested the incident be discussed at Tuesday’s town board meeting and that the topic is on the agenda. The 11 a.m. meeting will be broadcast online, but the public will not be able to attend or participate.