Motel Owners Gear Up For Summer Season, Despite Coronavirus Fears

Dede Gotthelf Moan in the lobby of the Southampton Inn with Claude.

The East Hampton Town Board on Monday added its voice to the debate over whether motels should be booking rooms to out-of-town visitors, urging in a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo that he prohibit them from reopening until the Long Island region has more successfully fended off the coronavirus.

The board’s letter pointed to inconsistencies in the governor’s guidance, which has directed regions to “not open attractions or businesses that would draw a larger number of visitors from outside the local area.” The letter states that although the governor has asked that motels only be reopened if there is no evidence of a viral resurgence, he previously included them on the list of “essential businesses” that have been allowed to remain open during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, some innkeepers are saying they are ready to start welcoming vacationers, while others say even if they wanted to book every room they have, the business just isn’t there because of continued fears over the pandemic.

Leo Daunt, whose family has owned Daunt’s Albatross Motel in downtown Montauk for nearly 50 years, said it has remained open — but barely. He said the motel has averaged perhaps 10-percent occupancy since the pandemic arrived here in early March.

Mr. Daunt said most motels in Montauk are like his family’s business and “only renting to people who have a reason to be here,” such as those who might work in a grocery store or other essential business but are unable to find a short-term rental.

“No motels are looking to fill their property with people who don’t care about social distancing,” he said. “They care about their staff and nobody wants to get it, especially owner-operators who live on site.”

Mr. Daunt said motels are being unfairly blamed for the influx of outsiders arriving in Montauk, but said the finger should be pointed at day-trippers, Airbnb and other online rental services, and houses that have been rented out for extra-long seasons by those fleeing New York City.

When motels do rent rooms, they are exercising extra precautions like spacing guests around the building and disinfecting the premises regularly. “It’s really hard. You are in danger of going bankrupt,” he said, “so you don’t want to be turning away business. But at the same time, there’s not a lot of business to turn away.”

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, whose family owns the Breakers Montauk, a collection of vacation rental cabins on Old Montauk Highway, said he disagreed with East Hampton’s stance, adding, “but I’m a little biased, being in the hotel business.”
Mr. Schneiderman said East Hampton has many more motel rooms — most of them in Montauk and on Napeague — than Southampton Town does, so he understood the town’s desire to err on the side of caution. But he said if innkeepers used restraint and didn’t overbook, he saw no problem with them reopening.

“We’re not seeing any party groups. All we are seeing is families looking for a place to stay,” he said of his family’s business. “All they are going to do is walk to the beach and maybe order takeout from a restaurant and help them stay in business.”

Michael Nenner, the area general manager of Gurney’s Montauk, said the resort had reopened guest rooms last week for the season, but is not opening its restaurants and only offering room service and “grab and go” from its coffee shops. He said the inn was taking precautions, from requiring guests and staff to wear masks and providing masks in each room.

“We have been getting some inquiries,” he said, “but the demand is not really there yet.”
Meanwhile, the Southampton Inn, which has been open during the pandemic, providing lodging for hospital and other essential workers, announced last week that it would begin this week to cater to “leisure travelers.”

Dede Gotthelf, the inn’s owner, said on Friday that it was her understanding that many similar establishments had already opened their doors or would do so soon.

While she said she was eager for a return to normal, she said the Southampton Inn would not cut corners when it came to the safety of its guests and staff. At her inn, she said spaces are marked six feet apart in the lobby leading to the registration desk, and guests will be provided with beach bags with masks and gloves, although she urges guests to pack their own supplies as well in case supplies run short.

The inn’s restaurant, Claude’s, will serve picnic-style meals that will be served on properly spaced tables. The pool will be open, but lounge chairs will be spaced 6 feet apart, and the inn’s shuttle bus will carry a limited number of people.

Ms. Gotthelf said she expected guests to be cooperative with local efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 and said those who decide they do not want to come will be able to take advantage of a flexible cancellation and postponement policy.

“I’m going to be a bit of an optimist,” she said, “From what I’ve seen in Southampton, people have been cautious and polite, wearing masks and being aware of the dangers. We’re not looking for people who want to come out here to party or congregate. We are looking for those who want a quiet and peaceful visit.”

In Montauk, Mr. Daunt, who serves on the town’s business reopening committee, said he expected things could start to hop again soon if the numbers continue their downward trend. Nonetheless, he said businesses need to exercise caution and the town needs to be flexible by doing things like letting restaurants move tables outdoors, so they can provide sufficient spacing between guests.

“A lot of places are getting creative with bold plans,” he said. “I hope some of the ideas that have been suggested go somewhere.”