Editorial: A Warning Shot

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After months of stress-filled days due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, some cracks are beginning to show. We see it in our daily lives, in our work lives, in our family lives — and even among our elected leaders.

There’s much to celebrate. New York State, hit first and hardest in the United States, is in recovery. It’s far too early to consider the crisis past, but it’s notable that the state’s aggressive approach — and the buy-in from residents, who complied early on and, largely, continue to — has brought the virus under control. The recent numbers continue to be promising, a far different situation from other states that were less committed.

But Governor Andrew Cuomo let slip a little flare of anger this week, sparking a squabble with local officials. On Sunday, in the midst of announcing the continued good news on the COVID-19 stats, he adopted a stern tone in talking about New York City — and the South Fork. Singling out the two regions, he warned, “We have to stay smart. And if the local governments don’t enforce compliance, they’re not doing anyone a favor.” He warned that, even as Suffolk County looks to move to phase three of the reopening as soon as next week, it could just as easily be forced to retreat back to more closures if a lack of enforcement means COVID-19 numbers creep up.

“So to local governments,” he concluded, “I say, do your job.”

Where did that come from? Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, on Monday, all complained about being blindsided by the governor’s remarks. “We’re all scratching our heads,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.

All said that the governor’s worries about the number of violations doesn’t seem backed up by the number of complaints fielded locally. “Please feel free to share with me any knowledge of specific cases within my jurisdiction where you believe the guidelines are being ignored,” Mr. Schneiderman wrote in a formal letter.

It’s not hard to see what’s happening — the governor hinted at it himself. He’s a frequent visitor to the South Fork, with family, friends and backers here. On Monday, he noted that some people were texting him photographs directly to show restaurants and other businesses not following social distancing guidelines. Who has that kind of access to the governor? A few texts can easily make the situation look worse than it is.

That said, anyone who lives here, or is visiting, had a few head-turning moments over the last few weeks. Some businesses, desperate to survive and facing a summer of catastrophic uncertainty, have flaunted the rules, or certainly stretched them to near breaking. There are examples of restaurants seating indoor patrons, ahead of schedule, and businesses relaxing the distancing rules to a worrying degree. Anyone with a cellphone and the governor’s number could find examples to send along. (Imagine getting that call from the governor, in his own words: “I am looking at a picture of your establishment taken 25 minutes ago, and people are violating everything, everything — no masks, no social distancing.”)

So, a few takeaways. The governor’s warning shot, lumping this region with New York City, where the density is much more worrisome and enforcement is more difficult, was probably a little overblown. Most people, most businesses, are following the rules. The towns and villages here are keeping an eye on the situation. Could there be more compliance? Should the rules be more vigorously enforced? There’s always room for improvement, and the governor’s warning gives local officials a new reason to redouble the local effort.

It’s also a stark reminder, at a time we need it: The crisis is not over. The summer season’s arrival brings the opportunity to begin emerging from lockdown mode in a more significant way — and local businesses, which have been devastated, see a chance to begin making up ground. That all can happen. But there needs to be a continued commitment to simple social distancing measures. There simply is no alternative: We cannot have made up so much ground, only to lose it to impatience and impertinence.

As with our families, and our co-workers, all of us — residents, visitors and businesses — are truly in this together, and our choices affect others. Paying attention to that has gotten us this far. It has to remain the guiding principle as we glimpse the sun breaking through the clouds.

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