As Governor Threatens Reopening Rollback, Local Officials Ask ‘What Violations?’

On Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to roll back reopening if failure to comply with NY PAUSE mandates persists.

A cadre of “Davids,” in the form of local lawmakers and police took on “Goliath,” in the person of Governor Andrew Cuomo, this week. On Sunday, the governor lambasted the Hamptons as, along with New York City, the worst offender when it comes to violating the state’s reopening regulations. By Monday, local lawmakers responded, almost in unison, with, “What violations?”

The governor threatened to roll back reopening in noncompliant regions where violations are unchecked.

“You don’t need a detective squad to find them,” he said of violators. “They are rampant and there is not enough enforcement. I am not going to allow situations to exist that we know have a high likelihood of causing an increase in the spread of the virus.”
But the statements left East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc stymied.

“We’re all scratching our heads,” he said. He participated in a conference call with representatives from the governor’s office, as well as the State Liquor Authority and Department of Health. “Nobody could seem to come up with any specific issues with any business in any East End town.”

The supervisor reported that East End police chiefs also spoke with each other on Monday and couldn’t pinpoint any areas of concern.

“Nobody knows what he’s talking about,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “We’ve been actively trying to work with businesses and we’re not having a lot of problems. Business owners get it. I’m not seeing the problem, if there is one.”

East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo reported two complaints last weekend about social distancing and masks in Amagansett Square, and some crowding near Nick’s on the Beach. Both were dispersed and compliance gained within five minutes, he said.

“If there are complaints going to Albany, it would be nice if the complaints were sent to us to address, and the information forwarded to the municipality so we can work with the businesses or address the areas being complained about. That is not happening,” the chief said.

His desire for information was echoed by counterparts and lawmakers in other municipalities across the South Fork. On Monday afternoon, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman wrote a scathing letter to Mr. Cuomo, who, during his Sunday scolding, directed local governments to “do your job.”

“I seek clarification regarding your remarks as my primary charge is to protect public safety,” Mr. Schneiderman wrote. “Please feel free to share with me any knowledge of specific cases within my jurisdiction where you believe the guidelines are being ignored. Did you mean to imply that every local jurisdiction is ignoring the state rules?”
He informed Mr. Cuomo in the letter that the “Hamptons” region consists of two towns and eight villages, with seven independent police departments and a similar number of ordinance enforcement departments.

“All agencies, that I am aware of, have been enforcing the guidelines to the best of their abilities and many areas, including Southampton Town, have adopted regulations that are even stricter than the state guidance,” he said. “In fact, the Hamptons area met with the metrics weeks before the region we were placed into, which included all of Nassau and Suffolk counties. “

The supervisor listed the array of mandates his town staff enforced: social distancing, mask wearing regulations, non-essential business restrictions, limitations on gathering and, Mr. Schneiderman wrote, “every other regulation promulgated by the state.”

Speaking to Newsday after the governor’s scalding update, Mr. Schneiderman chafed, wondering why Mr. Cuomo didn’t pick up the phone. In the letter, he underscored, “We speak regularly on conference calls with your local representatives who have never raised concerns about a pattern of non-compliance in our area or even a single concern about a business ignoring the requirements.”

East End elected officials have been working around the clock for months to flatten the curve, the supervisor said.

“I want to assure you that we are doing our job,” he wrote.

Before signing off, Mr. Schneiderman asked the governor to forward “any complaints that you have received pertaining to businesses in my jurisdiction, to allow our law enforcement agencies to properly investigate them.”

Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki was also stymied.
“We are not sure what the governor is referring to, and are requesting an explanation,” he said.

The chiefs of the East End police departments share information regarding how to manage non-compliance on a regular basis, Mr. Skrynecki explained. Southampton Town Police haven’t taken punitive action and, said the chief, “I don’t believe other East End departments have either. We have taken an approach of educate and seek compliance when needed and have received compliance in each case.”

“None of us understand what he was talking about,” Quogue Village Police Chief Christopher Isola said Tuesday. “I don’t think the facts were behind the comments.” He reported no cases of noncompliance in his village last weekend. In Westhampton Beach, the response was the same. Spokesman police officer Andrew Kirwin reported “not one call” related to businesses in violation of any executive orders.

Southampton Village Police responded to four calls about non-compliant restaurants, three related to the same locale, and one was unfounded. Police visited the Main Street restaurant where diners were seen indoors in violation of rules regulating restaurants, three days in a row. Patrons were told to leave and did. No tickets were issued.

“We have not had any complaints and people are really being compliant,” said Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire. “Everyone is in this together, and we are all trying to get back to a new normal.”

On Monday, Sag Harbor Village Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said most of Sag Harbor’s restaurants have been in compliance. She added that she went to Main Street twice on Sunday night — at 5:30 and 7 p.m. — and that at peak dining times, most restaurants were abiding by state guidelines.

“There are some people who think they are above the law and we have asked them to stop,” she said. “If they don’t, we welcome the SLA.”

Bars and restaurants could lose their liquor licenses if they fail to comply with reopening mandates, the governor said on Sunday. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, police have complained that the punitive measures Chief Skrynecki referenced are vague at best.

“Other than a public health law violation section, which seems to have been thrown out repeatedly when written in the city, no there is no other guidance from Albany on enforcement,” Chief Sarlo said. While the governor said a task force of state inspectors and State Liquor Authority inspectors are out in force and will issue violations to offending business owners, police can also issue SLA violations.

“I think for the most part, people are being really good,” Mayor Mulcahy said.

Saturday, she said, the village was busy. “People are being good about using masks and with social distancing are doing the best they can given the size of the sidewalks in the village.”

Ms. Mulcahy said that when she heard about the 25,000 complaints made to the state — a majority coming from New York City and the Hamptons, according to Governor Cuomo — she reached out to the governor’s assistant to ask for copies of any complaints generated in the village.

Ms. Mulcahy said a roll back of reopening would be devastating to local businesses.

“And that is why we have been telling people to try and do the right thing,” she said.

“I’d love to see the complaints,” State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. weighed in. “We haven’t received any, and we have gotten dozens during the pandemic about businesses, but not this weekend. Not saying it’s been perfect out there … it hasn’t, but I’m not aware of any wholesale disregard by businesses either.”

“We have been enforcing state orders and will continue to do that,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Monday. “We haven’t see a significant number of complaints.”
He noted the chief of the Suffolk County Police Department has been working cooperatively with independent agencies on the twin forks.

Overwhelmingly, there has been great compliance with state orders, Mr. Bellone said. The Department of Health will be sending out copies of state guidelines and mandates to businesses and restaurants in the county, he informed.

As news of Mr. Cuomo’s threat spread Sunday, “People were tagging me on social media, telling me to do something,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “There’s nothing to be done because nothing happened.”

Clearly frustrated by the verbal attack, the supervisor nevertheless added, “Governor Cuomo showed more leadership when it was most important than anyone in the country. He deserves a lot of credit for the fact that we’re reopening.”

Still, the supervisor observed, “He should take a day off from press conferences.”

Additional reporting by Kathryn Menu.