Beach Closures Still The Big Question

Ticketing at Atlantic Avenue Beach on Amagansett on Saturday.

Will East End beaches be open this summer? That’s a huge question on the minds of business owners, wouldbe vacationers, locals, and elected officials alike. So far, the collective answer across the South Fork is: “We don’t know yet.”

As East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc took measures to limit visitors to town beaches last weekend, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman offered an opposing philosophy.

Regionally, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has convened a working group to strategize how any potential end to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York PAUSE executive order may roll out. The PAUSE is slated to expire on May 15.

The group is expected to begin to brainstorm a plan later this week, Mr. Van Scoyoc, who was chosen a member of the working group helmed by Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, reported.

Across the board, mayors queried said they didn’t know if beaches would close and were awaiting instruction from the county and state.

“We’re all in this together, in our not knowing,” Sag Harbor Village Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said Tuesday.

Mr. Schneiderman is opposed to any beach closure. On Saturday, he reported visiting Coopers Beach in Southampton Village, and there were no crowds. It was easy to maintain social distance guidelines, he said.

“I want the beaches to stay open,” he said Saturday. “I had a wonderful walk on Coopers Beach today. There was no problem social distancing. It was not an issue whatsoever.”
He added that friends at Ponquogue Beach in Hampton Bays told him the same thing, that there were no issues.

The lawmaker said visits outdoors are healthy for people. “People need recreation, exercise, fresh air, to go out into open space,” he said. “They come here for the beaches, it’s who we are.”

Besides, Mr. Schneiderman noted that closing one beach could create problems in other areas.

“We have 300 miles of coastline,” he said. “If I close one spot, I’m just pushing people to another … I’m going to do everything I can to keep the beaches open.”
The supervisor mused that there was “plenty of room” on town beaches to maintain social distancing.

“Even before COVID-19,” he quipped, “if you got within 6 feet of somebody’s blanket, they gave you a dirty look.”

Mr. Schneiderman said he was concerned that if East Hampton Town banned parking at its beaches, day trippers would be pushed to Southampton.

As of last weekend, however, he didn’t see that as Mr. Van Scoyoc’s parking directive went into effect. Last Wednesday, the supervisor announced there would be amped up enforcement of parking rules at East Hampton Town beaches.

An early enactment of summertime beach parking rules resulted in some 177 parking tickets handed out at area beaches on Saturday. The tickets were for parking without a proper sticker or parking in “no parking” areas. Parking without a beach permit can result in a $150 fine, while a “no parking zone” summons comes with an $80 fine.

“We are looking at this as a means to reduce density and discourage use of the town beach accesses,” East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo explained. “It is important to note, that despite the ‘crowds’ at the State Parks, and Ditch Plains for the good surf this weekend, over the past 16 days, Montauk has seen an increase of exactly one new positive confirmed case. ”

Mr. Van Scoyoc noted in a release Tuesday that the goal of the increased parking enforcement was to limit the numbers of people at particular sites in order to maintain the minimum recommended social distance of 6 feet between individuals.

In addition to the parking initiative, the town closed a section of the Kirk Park parking lot in Montauk and limited parking to residents only in the remainder. They restricted parking in areas near Montauk beaches as well, and suspended the sale and renewal of nonresident parking permits.

“While I support people being able to get out and recreate, we don’t want to promote tourism just yet,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said, following an influx of daytrippers and visitors that poured into Montauk the weekend of April 18-19.

Complaints about jam-packed parking lots at state parks have been flowing into town offices almost since the start of the coronavirus crisis. In many instances, Mr. Van Scoyoc pointed out, full parking lots do not necessarily mean that their occupants are ignoring social distancing guidelines, but the town asked the state to have Park Police and staff monitoring to ensure that the rules the town is enforcing at its own beaches and parklands are being followed in the state parks. During that first weekend, park police deployment was lacking, but this past weekend, the supervisor said he was pleased to see the state increased its staffing and enforcement presence in parks under their jurisdiction like the Lighthouse and Shadmoor State Park. The supervisor announced that he will continue to have four additional police officers and two marine patrol officers available to patrol on the weekends.

With a county working group convened to mull regional strategies for beaches, exactly what the group hoped to prevent was poised to occur in East Hampton last weekend — beachgoers turned back from one area and flooding another.

On Friday, officials in East Hampton Village were “scrambling,” to find a way to handle a potential overload at their beaches, where sticker enforcement doesn’t go into effect until May 15, according to Deputy Mayor Barbara Borsack. Staff was seen dropping blue wooden barricades off at Georgica beach Friday afternoon. Mayor Richard Lawler said Monday that things went “pretty well.” One lot was cordoned off and cones were placed in every other spot in the 15-minute parking area at Main Beach. While he said he’ll rely on the governor regarding any summer closure, so far “we’re not seeing that happen,” the mayor said.

Asked whether a potential wholesale closure of village beaches has been contemplated, Ms. Borsack said, “it would be very difficult to do that.” People can walk onto beaches in East Hampton Village and town from innumerable places beyond traditional public accesses. Right now, she said, the plan is still to open the beaches publicly on Memorial Day weekend as occurs every year.

But questions remain. “How does that look?” the deputy mayor asked rhetorically. Public beaches need public restrooms. Would the village open them? Would staff sanitize the facilities numerous times per day? Department heads in the village met Friday morning to begin to figure out answers to myriad questions.

Ms. Borsack pointed out there’s plenty of room on village beaches for people to maintain social distancing, but will they? Will officials be able to enforce it?

Asked whether she was giving any thought to closing beaches or enacting special protocols, Westhampton Beach Village Mayor Maria Moore said, “ The current scope of Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order requires the Board of Trustees to reevaluate the official date for opening the Village beaches and the method and dates for distributing car stickers and beach passes.” She is awaiting recommendations from the county working group.

“Thought, yes, decisions, no,” Quogue Village Mayor Peter Sartorius said in response to the same question. “Beaches and many other things will likely be decided on a regional basis,” he put forth.

It’s a great idea to work regionally, Mr. Schneiderman said, but the East End is vastly different from areas up west. Even on the South Fork, different hamlets may have unique beach-going styles and needs. “There’s no one size fits all policy,” the lawmaker said. “I’m gonna do what I have to do.”