By Alec Giufurta
Thousands of concertgoers attended a charity music festival headlined by The Chainsmokers in Water Mill on Saturday evening, drawing sharp condemnation from state public health officials and Governor Andrew Cuomo.
At the height of the “drive-in” festival, large crowds packed into the front-section of the field, and mingled throughout the 100-acre venue. By Monday afternoon, video and images of the event circulated widely on social media, trending nationally and unleashing severe public rebuke.
The event occurred as New York State officials grapple with school reopening decisions, and as the nation struggles to contain a months-long surge in COVID-19 cases, particularly in states that neglected to impose strict social distancing regulations early on in the pandemic.
New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, in a Monday letter to Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman — who also performed at the concert — wrote that he was “at a loss as to how the Town of Southampton could have issued a permit for such an event, how they believed it was legal and not an obvious public health threat.”
On Monday evening, Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted that he was “appalled” at the “egregious social distancing violations” at the concert. In a Tuesday call with reporters, the governor stated that criminal charges may be filed, NBC reported.
Mr. Schneiderman, in a Monday phone call, said that the crowds in the front-section were inconsistent from the social distancing the event promised in its permit applications.
At a Tuesday news conference held in front of Town Hall, Mr. Schneiderman said that the town had cited organizers with non-financial code violations, and that Town Police are considering additional measures. The supervisor noted that the event was shut down 30 minutes early — at 10:30 p.m. — because of social distancing violations.
The event, advertised as “Safe & Sound Hamptons,” was organized as a benefit concert to aid charities. Tickets, starting at $1,250, provided guests access to one parking spot for their vehicle — which included space to set up chairs. For $25,000, 10 people could rent out a private RV for the evening.
Copies of the special event permit for the event indicate that Southampton Town approved “a maximum of 2,150 people in total” to be at the event. At the news conference, Mr. Schneiderman said it was possible that up to 3,000 attendees were present. On his Instagram story, Adam Alpert, CEO of Disruptor Records — The Chainsmokers’ label — posted that 3,000 people attended the event.
At the beginning of the Saturday night event, Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren, serving as MC, lauded the town: “We are fortunate to be in Southampton where we have successfully flattened the curve.”
Mr. Warren then implored attendees to wear masks and maintain appropriate distancing, noting that there had been 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the nation on Friday. A database compiled by The New York Times reported that on July 24, there were 1,147 deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States, more than the 7-day rolling average of 892 deaths.
Prior to the event, organizers had pledged, in a press release, to temperature check all attendees and provide complimentary face masks. At the event, several concertgoers told The Press that they were not temperature checked, and Mr. Schneiderman noted in a phone call with The Press that “they must have stopped doing it as the lines built up.”
Leading up to Saturday, organizers plotted out 20 foot by 20 foot zones for each car’s occupants to stay in for the event. Additionally, when purchasing tickets, a questionnaire asked buyers if they had had a fever in the past 14 days, as well as other questions designed to identify individuals potentially infected with COVID-19.
And while patrons were reminded, multiple-times, to remain in their car’s assigned lot for the entirety of the event, except to use the restroom, many concert-goers moved from zone to zone, visiting the beer pong tables and picnics of other attendees. Mr. Schneiderman said that organizers failed to properly adhere to this requirement, and that they did not hire adequate enforcement staff.
The concert was held at Nova’s Ark Project, a 100-acre sculpture park in Water Mill, and was hosted by In the Know Experiences and JAJA Tequila, a brand The Chainsmokers invest in. Profits will be donated to charities, including The Southampton Fresh Air Home, a press release stated.
Mr. Schneiderman and his band opened the concert at around 7:30 p.m., quickly followed by New York-based singer-songwriter Matt White. After Mr. White, Goldman Sachs CEO David Soloman took to the stage, performing an electrifying set as a prelude to The Chainsmokers, who entered to perform just after 9 p.m.
For The Chainsmokers, Saturday’s event served as their first concert in six months — the group had planned a hiatus prior to the pandemic’s onset. The EDM and music production duo performed a wide arrangement of songs, sampling from The Lion King, Post Malone’s “Sunflower” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
In a statement, the event organizers, In The Know Experiences and Invisible Noise, insisted that they followed “all proper and current protocol,” and stated that they enforced social distancing and checked all guests’ temperatures.
“After last night’s trial run, I would not recommend a repeat,” Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki wrote in an email on Sunday.
In his letter, Dr. Zucker reminded the supervisor that “no non-essential gathering is permitted in excess of 50 individuals, per Executive Order 202.53 until August 20, 2020.”
Dr. Zucker also requested that the supervisor respond to a series of questions within 24 hours, including: “What town officials were at the concert and why was it allowed to continue when it became clear violations were rampant?”
Mr. Schneiderman said what had occurred was “completely unacceptable.” In hindsight, the supervisor and musical guest said he would have “never been a part of this.”