‘Crowded But Positive’ Weekend On South Fork Marred By Flouting Of Coronavirus Precautions At Montauk Bars

Like the scene at some bars, Montauk's beaches over the holiday weekend had hot spots of concerning crowds but were mostly spaced responsibly, thanks in part to efforts by town lifeguards who used a 10-foot pole to ensure that unrelated groups were spaced out on the sand. This photo by lifeguard Sutton Lynch shows the scene in front of the Royal Atlantic on Saturday afternoon. Courtesy of Sutton Lynch

The Fourth of July weekend brought a mostly welcome boom in business to the South Fork, but also a wave of revelry to Montauk that sometimes strayed far beyond state-mandated social distancing guidelines and overwhelmed the ability of local authorities to rein in violations that Governor Andrew Cuomo has warned could force a slowing of re-opening steps, which entered the fourth phase locally on Wednesday.

Town officials and business leaders said that the throngs of visitors to the area was a welcome relief for businesses reeling from the spring shut-downs and was mostly handled well by both businesses and their patrons. But they were left fuming over what they saw as selfish arrogance by the scattered violators.

“We’ve made such strides through the personal sacrifices of our community and it would be a real shame to blow it,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said on Tuesday. “We can’t allow flagrant flaunting of these regulations. They are here for public safety.

East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo said his officers were “swamped” by the deluge of calls for their services over the weekend — some 120 calls to police came in just during the overnight hours on Saturday — largely from raucous party scenes in Montauk more reminiscent of the pre-COVID-19 era.

Police charged the owners or managers of three popular Montauk bars on Saturday with minor criminal violations of New York State Liquor Authority bylaws. But town officials said that in reporting the violations to the state, they will also be spotlighting other apparent violations, including of COVID-19 protocols and other health and safety codes — with the implied threat that the businesses’ liquor licenses could be revoked at the very height of the summer season.

Rick Gibbs, owner of Rick’s Crabby Cowboy Cafe; Vincenzo Lentini, owner of Ruschmeyer’s; and Jeffrey Capri, the manager of Nick’s on the Beach, were each charged with violating state “signage” and “alcohol storage” regulations.

After photos and videos of crowds of people, mostly not wearing face masks and not seated at tables, as currently required, circulated on social media, town officials issued a harsh rebuke of the businesses for not requiring their patrons to follow state-mandated COVID-19 precautions and warned that drastic steps will have to be taken to prevent continued violations so as to protect the entire region from a roll-back of reopenings.

“While the vast majority of businesses are operating safely, and are respectful of the potential threat from COVID-19, we cannot allow some to operate in ways that threaten the public health as well as the continued ability for other businesses to remain open,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said in a statement released by the town. “I will be asking the State Liquor Authority to suspend the license of any business that openly and repeatedly flouts COVID-19 safety regulations. We cannot afford to have responsible businesses shut down due to irresponsible operators.”

Mr. Gibbs, whose restaurant hosts a “pop-up” nightclub called Common Ground @ Ricks on Friday and Saturday nights, said that a video shared on social media that seems to have fueled much of the outrage captured a convulsive moment of unbridled carousing — brought on the DJ’s cueing of the 1969 Neil Diamond hit “Sweet Caroline” — by patrons that had been seated just moments earlier and were seated again shortly afterward.

“The critical mass of what happened at Rick’s was over a 15 minute period from when they played ‘Sweet Caroline’ until we got everyone sitting down again,” Mr. Gibbs said on Tuesday. “It was just one of those things, that song gets them out of their seat.”

Mr. Gibbs, who has owned the Crabby Cowboy for 24 years, said his staff had been requiring that patrons wear masks when not seated at their group’s picnic tables. Next weekend, he said, there will be no dance floor area and no DJ playing rollicking dance music, just the restaurant’s normal “chill” soundtrack.

Mr. Van Scoyoc said that in light of the violations at some businesses here and on Fire Island, he expects the state to take action quickly against bars that are not following guidelines as Long Island begins the fourth stage of easing social distancing restrictions.
“They have been forewarned,” he said on Monday. “We think the SLA is going to come down pretty swiftly and … put the hammer down. The governor called-out the Hamptons and said he was going to do that. I think he means what he says.”

Governor Cuomo said last month that violations of the guidelines set forth in each phase of the state’s easing of restrictions on business, could result in closures or a freezing of the re-opening process for an entire region. At the time, he had spotlighted the Hamptons as a problem area, but local officials said they were getting very few such complaints.
Over the past weekend, however, the complaints flowed in.

Even with nearly two dozen officers from the East Hampton Town Police Department, Marine Patrol, Fire Marshal and Code Enforcement departments on duty at any give time over the weekend, the town had to scramble to keep up with the volume of calls — more than 450 in all over the extended weekend — which ranged from a nearly constant stream of complaints about social distancing guidelines being violated to loud house parties and illegal fireworks to car crashes and a suicidal subject barricaded in a Montauk home.

“This was one of the busiest Fourth of July weekends we’ve ever had,” Chief Sarlo told the Town Board, in terms of the number of calls. “We were obviously spread very thin.”

Most of the complaints about shops, restaurants or beach-goers not following state protocols were either unwarranted or quickly remedied, the chief said, as most stores and restaurants proved to be adhering to the rules: limiting indoor occupancy, requiring patrons to wear masks when not seated at a table and allowing the consumption of alcohol only when seated or “to go” only with food orders.

Lifeguards patrolled beaches with 10-foot poles, to ensure that groups of people were separated from each other and used drones to monitor the occupancy at beaches.
But late at night, the town’s resources were stretched thin by the surge in complaints from outside the business district, leaving officials to renew calls for some new rules that could help ease the burdens on local agencies.

Chief Sarlo said that the town has asked the state repeatedly to help ease the efforts to regulate social distancing requirements by shortening the hours that bars may remain open — forcing them to close when their kitchens stop serving food — and ending the new allowance on restaurants being able to sell alcoholic beverages “to go.” The state has not, thus far, responded to those pleas as restaurant and bar owners have begged for every inch of financial rope the can be given as the try to save their businesses from ruin.

“They don’t seem to truly understand the volume of establishments, as well as the strain on our resources we experience serving the community during peak summer hours,” Chief Sarlo said in a message on Monday. He lamented that the town simply did not have the manpower to dedicate several officers to forcing establishments that were not enforcing health protocols to close late on Saturday night.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone nodded to the problems in Montauk and seemingly even more widespread violations on Fire Island over the weekend. He said the county is considering posting police officers at problematic businesses on Fire Island next weekend and is working with East End agencies on ways to prevent a repeat of problems.

Beyond the black marks on the report card left by a few “bad actors,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said he felt the weekend overall was “positive” — a mix of good business and smart adherence to health precautions by most visitors.

“I think it was crowded, but generally everything was pretty good,” he said. “Generally, the restaurants did a pretty good job and there were not significant issues other than just a few operators. Most business owners get it. The don’t want to get shut down again, they don’t want to go backwards. That would be devastating for so many businesses.”

Paul Monte, the president of the Montauk Chamber of Commerce said that there were some very hopeful signs over the weekend, in terms of crowds of visitors.

With businesses reeling from the forced closures of the spring and the cancellation of business-boosting events like the Montauk Music Festival, many are worried about how to build enough of a nest egg through the scant few summer weeks to survive the coming winter, and the bustling streets of the past weekend fed glimmers of hope — if it can continue.

The prospect of a renewed outbreak in New York, like those being seen in dozens of other states, and the halting of reopening steps, is the worst possible scenario, Mr. Monte said.

Business owners are mostly welcoming the town’s hawkish adherence to the state protocols, because they want things to remain on the promising track they have been on for a month now: declining infection rates and easing restrictions on business.

“From a business perspective, I would say everybody was happy that there were people around and that people were spending money and, for the most part, everybody was behaving properly and masking up,” the former Gurney’s Inn owner said. “The bad actors, we don’t want that. That is an extreme minority of businesses. The vast majority are approaching things very responsibly. They are well aware of the repercussions both economically and health-wise if they don’t.”