By Caroline Haubenstricker
In March, as COVID-19 spread across the region, New York State issued strict stay-at-home guidelines and virtually all commerce ground to a halt. That included the East End’s arts organizations, all of which immediately shut their doors and have remained closed ever since.
These organizations rely on the summer season to carry them through the year and they have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
Now, Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni and Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming are working together on an effort that would allow small arts institutions on the East End to open earlier than the state’s guidelines, which stipulate reopening of entertainment facilities in phase four.
“This has really been generated by an effort by the Hamptons Arts Network and members of my team who really desperately need to open their doors,” said Fleming, referring to HAN, a consortium of 19 cultural institutions on the South Fork that meet regularly. “We have joined forces with Mr. Schiavoni to move forward.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has held daily COVID-19 press briefings with municipal leaders in the county to discuss issues of concern During one of these recent sessions, Schiavoni and Fleming put forth the idea of allowing some arts organizations to reopen earlier than phase four and Bellone encouraged them to provide plans for their idea.
“Art on the East End is critically important to our culture and economy, and we run the risk of losing them completely if they don’t open this summer,” said Fleming, noting that she and Schiavoni met with leaders of the Parrish Art Museum, the Madoo Conservancy, Sag Harbor Cinema, Southampton Arts Center, among others. “Some of them have opened under the retail category. But we are working to have non-retail-specific art institutions operate.”
In order to be considered for early opening, each arts institution has to have its own public safety plan, just like the majority of retail businesses. The plan includes social distancing regulations, limits on capacities, providing hand sanitizer, gloves and masks, and managing traffic, all of which has to be vetted and approved by the state.
Schiavoni and Fleming have compiled these plans and presented them to Bellone who, in turn, is expected to meet soon with the state to petition for the plans to be reviewed, Schiavoni said.
“I understand that Nassau County Executive Laura Kern has said publicly that she supports accelerating the reopening of arts institutions,” Fleming said. “It is my hope that a decision will soon be made for these institutions to be opened on Long Island.”
“We are still operating on the state guidelines,” Schiavoni added. “This would just be a state-wide clarification to move smaller art institutions out of phase four to reopen. We, of course, want it safe since we don’t want a resurgence in cases.”
“I do see the cost of [art institutions] remaining closed to be detrimental for many reasons. They rely on patrons and employ hundreds of people in Southampton alone — into the thousands on the East End,” Schiavoni said. “Our local government, meaning towns and villages, have been doing an effective job with COVID-19. This is new for all of us. We have to make adjustments, and this is one of those adjustments to be made to help our community.”