The coronavirus pandemic surged across the South Fork this week, with East Hampton Town recording its largest weekly increase in new cases yet, and portions of the region landing in the state’s microcluster zone protocols.
The state on Monday declared Hampton Bays, Riverhead and portions of Flanders, Riverside and Shinnecock Hills “Yellow Zone” COVID-19 microclusters because of sustained elevated rates of confirmed infections recorded among residents in those communities.
And in East Hampton Town, there were 43 new cases confirmed in the seven days between November 18 and November 25, an 11-percent increase in total cases, the town’s largest jump in new cases yet.
“The second wave that we’ve long talked about seems to be here,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said on Thursday, warning that the flouting of social distancing rules is threatening to force renewed restrictions on businesses and force schools back to remote learning, and the economic impacts that has on working families and children’s education. “With the Thanksgiving holiday coming, these numbers are going to surge even higher. We are not only putting at risk our public health, we are also endangering our economic recovery.”
The Yellow Zone designations, the lowest “precautionary” level of the state’s three microcluster zones, places new restrictions and requirements on residents and facilities in those areas, intended to stanch the spread of infections in the communities.
Churches and other houses of worship will be limited to 50 percent of capacity, non-residential gatherings are limited to 25 people or less, restaurants may remain open under the current half-occupancy limits but may not allow more than four people at a time at one table, and 20 percent of all school students and faculty must be tested for coronavirus infections each week.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the new zone designations on Monday morning, adding Hampton Bays and Riverhead to the list of 26 communities state-wide that have seen the most significant surges in positive cases — rates above 5 percent over seven days — this month. Seven regions remain in the Orange Zone “hot spot” classification after two Queens neighborhoods were downgraded from orange to yellow after improvements in infection rates were seen.
The positivity rates in even the worst of the state’s hot zones and across the state as a whole still remain far below some Midwestern states that are seeing spikes in infection rates this month approaching 50 percent positivity.
But with college students streaming home from other states for the Thanksgiving holiday and many Americans expected to ignore federal Centers for Disease Control exhortations to cancel large family gatherings, Governor Cuomo and other local leaders warned that infection rates could mushroom quickly if New Yorkers are not extremely vigilant.
The specter of business and, especially, school closures hovered over all discussions of the rising infection rate this week as parents, business owners and public officials worried about the economic and social stresses that new lockdowns could create and fretted over how to convince those ignoring social distancing guidelines to re-focus on community responsibility.
“It is really important for people to get serious about this again,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. “We had a pretty good summer, I would say. The infection rate was very static. But we were warned we’d have a resurgence when the weather got cold and … people are trying to stay employed and pay their bills and we want kids to be able to stay in school. People need to take their own responsibility for that seriously. Things could blow up really quickly.”
The growth in new cases in East Hampton eclipsed 4 percent positivity rate among tests administered to East Hampton residents, Mr. Van Scoyoc said he was told by state and county health officials.
But neither agency has yet shared with the town any of the contact tracing information that might reveal where the bump in infections is coming from. Mr. Van Scoyoc said there is no way for the town to know yet whether some of the infections may be college students getting tested in other regions that are simply being recorded as in East Hampton because that is the address listed on their insurance or driver’s license, or whether it is because of rapid community spread.
Infection rates on the South Fork have been plagued since the start of the pandemic by the unknowns of how infections are being reported to the state when residents who have homes both on the East End and in the metro area are found to be positive. Mr. Van Scoyoc said he suspects that East Hampton’s numbers were under-reported early in the pandemic because of second homeowners testing positive locally but being recorded as being in the city, New Jersey or Westchester.
Health officials have said that contact tracing has shown that the vast majority of the new cases county-wide are coming from small social gatherings at private residences at which people from different households are not practicing social distancing.
Thus far, the bump in infections has not reflected in a surge in hospitalizations on the South Fork, though a rise in serious cases would be expected to lag two weeks behind infections rising. Stony Brook Southampton Hospital had eight admissions of COVID-positive patients as of Tuesday morning.
The hospital has set up a new drive-through testing site in Red Creek Park in Hampton Bays that will operate on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and expanded its hours at the East Hampton High School testing site to 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The hospital also offers drive-up testing at Parrish Memorial Hall, adjacent the emergency department, Monday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
A pop-up testing site was set up in Southampton Village on Saturday and Monday and saw long lines of cars queued to roll through. Mayor Jesse Warren said he is working on getting a more regular new testing site set up there to meet the demand for tests as cases surge.
“We want to create the safest possible place in this village, where everyone is wearing masks and everyone is getting tested,” Mr. Warren said.
As officials have scrambled to address the new surge in cases, the county has put a special emphasis on keeping schools open, both because of the difficulties and inequities of remote instruction and because of the economic and logistical stresses it puts on working families.
The governor and Mr. Bellone have both said that keeping schools open is a priority, but that doing so will only be possible if infection rates in the schools remain low, which will require infections in the surrounding communities to drop.
With the Yellow Zone designation looming late last week, the county organized a rapid testing effort at the Hampton Bays Middle School on Thursday and Friday, administering more than 400 tests to randomly selected students, faculty, staff and members of the larger school community.
Just four of the 417 people tested at the school — two students, a staff member and someone from a staff member’s household — came back with positives, according to district Superintendent Lars Clemensen.
The superintendent said that the testing results should demonstrate that within the schools precautions are paying dividends and should be allowed to continue, considering the “ripple effect” remote learning sends through the community.
“Our positivity rate over the two days was six times less than the greater community, which reminds us all that schools continue to be a safe place to be,” Mr. Clemensen said in a message on Tuesday after his schools and Riverhead’s became the first in the county to fall under the Yellow Zone protocols. “We intend to continue the high standard of cleaning and sanitizing, social distancing and density reduction, and mask wearing.”
Mr. Clemensen said that since the start of the school year, there have been 24 confirmed COVID-19 infections among students and staff in the district. After quarantining all of those who were in a classroom or on a school bus with any of those positives — a total of more than 100 students and staff — the school found no cases of in-school spread.
The school had a scheduled half-day on Tuesday, before the five-day holiday break, so Mr. Clemensen said the district switched to remote-learning only for the day for all grades.
New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio ordered city schools shuttered last week to prevent spread, but Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mr. Bellone have said that testing has actually shown spread rates in schools to be far lower than in other corners of the community.
“We’ve seen other places in the state shut schools down and we don’t want that to happen here,” Mr. Bellone said. “Thus far, we’re not seeing spread in our schools because of the protocols they’ve put in place and they’re doing a great job.”