It was on March 25, just as the sheer terror of the coronavirus engulfed our region that Dr. Deborah Birx took to a White House podium to sound the alarm.
“We remain deeply concerned about New York City and the New York metro area,” said Birx, coordinator of the national White House coronavirus task force. “We are starting to see new cases across Long Island that suggest people have left the city.”
A few days later, 10 East End town supervisors and mayors wrote to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and asked him to bar diseased New York City residents from escaping to the farther reaches of Suffolk County. The officials feared that the limited health care system could not cope with the increased population, and that grocery stores and other services would be overwhelmed. “Our population doubles in the summer but not in March or April,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. “It’s very challenging for us.”
The officials were already too late to set up barricades. The city folks had pretty much come early and were staying in their summer homes and seasonal rentals.
Nick & Toni’s restaurant, the celebrity magnet in East Hampton with the levitated menu prices, was a leading indicator. On March 14, it sent an email with the “We are Here for You” subject line announcing it was open for business and following all safety protocols.
Rental prices soared with the demand; there was a 130% increase in contacts with real estate agents year over year in March, according to “Out East,” an online property service. The Sandcastle estate in Bridgehampton rented the first day it was on the market for $2 million from March to Labor Day. The summer-home sales market was already strong in the first two months of the year, said State Assemb. Fred Thiele, who represents the area.
But the new homeowners didn’t want to wait until the summer. “There is no question that there was a rush in March to get deals done before everything shut down,” said Thiele. The Peconic Bay Community Preservation Fund, which gets a percentage of closing fees for land conservation, said revenue for the first quarter of 2020 increased by 86.9% year over year. Thiele said the rental market was even hotter. Finding a place now, he said, “is like trying to find a parking space in Sag Harbor in July.”
Cuomo never issued the requested order. The hospitals were not overwhelmed, but the grocery stores were picked locust-like clean. Gourmet food delivery trucks from the tri-state area joined the daily brigade of service workers on main roads.
To get a better understanding of just what happened, to get a measurement beyond the anecdotal, The Point sought one common denominator: electrical usage.
PSEG data for Long Island shows that commercial usage was down but residential was up 8.5%, year over year, as residents stayed home. However, the average amount of energy used on the East End jumped by 25% in 2020. It was up 17% on the North Fork and 27% on the South Fork, where there are more seasonal rentals. LIPA provided the PSEG data to The Point for the weeks from March 21 to April 24.
“I thought it would be higher,” said Schneiderman, adding that most of the summer homes are occupied. He said it is always hard to measure residency at certain times of the year although they have tried road counts and waste tonnage.
While PSEG had no problem meeting the power demands, the internet, WiFi and cell service from providers apparently is spottier. “Everyone is working from their homes, there is a capacity issue,” Thiele said.
Schneiderman agreed, “the digital infrastructure is limited.”