Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman spoke at length on Friday, via Zoom, about the fallout from the July 25 benefit concert in Water Mill featuring the Chainsmokers — and Mr. Schneiderman’s own band, as an opening act — which prompted a call from an angry Governor Andrew Cuomo, and an upbraiding from New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, after photos of the crowd ignoring social distancing guidelines were widely circulated.
Q: Tell me about the last week and what it’s been like from your perspective.
Look, it’s been a long week. Plus, all my other duties at the town. But this time, the fallout from this event has obviously consumed a lot of the week. And lots of calls from various entities, and meetings with various … the Town Board and others. So, yeah, it’s been quite a bit of time associated with this. But it’s been a challenging week. I think that’s fair.
Q: What happened, in a nutshell? Can you explain how this happened?
So, when you say, “This,” I think you’re referring to the crowd that formed in front of the stage. But we have launched an investigation as to how this happened as well. In fact, we have two investigations as to how this happened.
… So, a request was made for a drive-in concert event. And the permit went through the process, gets submitted to the clerk, it gets reviewed by the Police Department, by the fire marshal, etc. They used to go to the Town Board — they don’t anymore. They go directly to these agencies.
And it was determined that it met the [state’s] guidance [on social distancing]. That it was going to be 500 cars, there was going to be a specific area next to each car where the individual could get out of the car and stay. They were not allowed to leave that area, except to use the bathrooms. They’re supposed to wear a mask if they did that. I think the permit required some 64 security guards, roughly, to make sure that social distancing [and] mask wearing were maintained.
And, for the first three hours, looking at the aerial video that the police took, and pictures, it looks like everything was going relatively well.
Something happened in the last 30 minutes of this show, where a crowd forms in front of the stage, in direct violation of the permit. This is in an area that is shown to be barricaded, or maybe [space for] press people, photographers, and things like that. This is in front of the first row of cars. And immediately in front of the stage.
And people start to form in that area. And this is what we’re investigating as to how that was allowed to happen. Who did that? Who were the decision makers? What did they do about it?
Q: And you weren’t at the scene at that time, correct?
So I was asked to perform in a charity benefit. … I’ve performed in a lot of local benefits. I’ve raised money for the Haiti earthquake. I raised money for Japan, the Fukushima situation, for Superstorm Sandy. Anytime I’m asked to play for a charity benefit, I typically do it if I can.
So I didn’t really think too much of it. I never looked at the permit or involved myself in any way with the permit.
So when I’m on stage [as an opening act], looking out there — and we have images of this — you don’t see a problem. Clearly, there’s no problem. Now, I did stay for a little while after I left [the stage]. But I went way, way toward the back. It was only toward close to 10 o’clock where I came forward. I just wanted to make sure that I had gotten all my stuff. And I did notice a few people. It wasn’t terrible at that point. But I did notice some people in that area.
And so I said to one of the security guards, I said, “You need to enforce social distancing and mask wearing.” And then I said to another security guard, “You need to enforce social distancing and mask wearing.” I was told that they would take care of it.
… And, honestly, I’m dressed in a T-shirt. They don’t even know I’m town supervisor, right? I’m telling these security guards, “You need to fix that problem.” And I assume that they said they were going to take care of it. I left. There was a police contingency there. There was 64 people, I believe, paid, required under the permit to enforce social distancing. I don’t have ticket writing abilities or anything like that. So I left.
And apparently it got worse after I left. And more people continued to get into this area, which, again, on the permit shows a sort of a barricaded area.
… The thing that I think is really critical here as we get into this: My focus this week has not been on trying to explain everything. My focus has been, I’m trying to protect public health.
So we believe that there were people in this area in front of the stage that were gathered together, some not wearing masks. We want to try to identify those people so that they can get tested. We want to know if anybody is COVID positive, so that we can quarantine anyone who might have been around them. So we are trying to reach out. We’ve reached out to New York State Health Department for assistance. We’ve reached out to Suffolk County Health Department for assistance.
We are trying to figure out who these individuals are. Obviously, those individuals know who they are. And we are trying to message out: “If you were in that area, please monitor yourself for symptoms. Please get tested.” They can forward their results to the Suffolk County Health Department, who will assist us in contact tracing.
So that should be the main focus here. No one wants to see an uptick in COVID. And I have worked very hard over the last five months to keep people safe. I’m the last person who wants to see an increase in COVID.
This was an event that I was told was safe, that met all the standards, and that all the protections were in place to keep it safe. We all want to find ways that we can be together, that we could be entertained, that are safe to do. It’s really important. And had the rules been followed, this likely would have been a safe event.
Q: Have the organizers been helping with the contact tracing?
Well, I have reached out to the organizers, asking them to do that. I believe our Public Safety Division has reached out to the organizers asking them to do that. And I believe our police are also working on that issue.
Q: Have you heard back yet?
I have not heard back from the organizer. No.
Q: I know you’re in the midst of an investigation of what happened. But as you sit here today, what do you think the root of the problem is? Was the permit adequate? Was the plan not followed?
I think there are ways to structure larger events that can be safe. You’re going to need a tremendous number of individuals who are tasked with enforcing the social distancing and the mask wearing.
… I was told that the design of the event met all the state standards. So right now, the governor’s office, they lay out the guidance, the Empire State Development Commission, in terms of what can happen. Gatherings of up to 50 people can happen. Malls can open under certain circumstances. Right? Drive-in movies, drive-in concerts can happen. You have to stay in your car. I think it’s understood that you can get out of your car next to your car.
And this was set up with a lot of distance between those vehicles. It was sort of set up with a sort of a checkerboard type of design where you had the car and people in a kind of designated area next to the car.
Q: Do you know how much distance between them?
The space that the families occupied in the regular ticketed areas was the same size as the car. So it was the car, and a space the same size as the car next to it. In the VIP area, there were five rows where the box was a little bit more square. So it was 20 by 20, rather than 16 by 20, or something like that. They had a little bit more elbow room.
But nobody was supposed to be at this event that wasn’t associated with a car. And there were no gathering areas. There was no viewing areas. It was just the car and the people next to the car.
Q: A drive-in show.
I never saw the permit, I didn’t review the permit. So the people who reviewed it, reviewed it to make sure it met the guidance. And the guidance and the fire marshal, and the Office of Public Safety, and police, all determined this was a safe design for an event. So these are the experts, right? So they’re saying, the design is correct.
Q: Was that design followed at the event?
For the first three hours, yes. But not in the last 30 minutes. The permit was violated, in my opinion. … People left their squares and moved forward. And I think there were some people who did do that. And the police dispersed that crowd and told them they need to go back, right?
So there was a different crowd, though, that was in front of that first row. That was a secured area. And on the record, I can’t say more about that.
Q: Because you’re still investigating, I’m guessing?
Yes. That is under investigation — how people were able to get into that guarded area. Yes. And how they entered it, where they entered it from, who they were. Where there checkpoints? Were they credentialed in some ways? Were they friends of the band? Whatever.
Q: But do you think it was a case of not having enough resources? Or was it that the resources didn’t operate adequately?
The event was designed with, I believe, 64 individuals that the organizer was required to provide, whose job was to enforce the COVID guidelines, right? So there were supposed to be people in every row making sure each person stayed in the area that they were designated to stay in. Then we had additional police officers as well. But there were an awful lot of people whose job it was to make sure that the guidelines were followed.
And there were assurances from the organizer that the guidelines would be followed, strictly adhered to. As well as promises made to me that the guidelines would be strictly adhered to. Because I wouldn’t have gotten involved or participated if I did not think that it was going to comply with all of the requirements.
Q: And I guess that’s what I’m trying to get to the heart of here: Was this a badly planned event? Or just a badly executed event?
I’m not second-guessing the people who reviewed the permit. I believe that they believed the design was sufficient to protect everyone from COVID, and meet all of the state guidance.
Q: Did the Town Police at some point step in and intervene to try and address the situation?
So, my understanding is, yes. They talked to the security and told them they needed to enforce the social distancing, mask wearing requirements. They dispersed the crowd that was just behind that first row of cars that seemed to be forming as a few people from the audience tried to move forward to get a better view. They were able to tell those individuals to go back to their spaces. And apparently with success — they did go back.
And the organizers were trying to extend the show to 11 o’clock. It was supposed to end at 10:30. But they had requested to go to 11. The police said, “Absolutely not.” That, “We will unplug you if you don’t end this concert by 10:30.” The concert was ended at 10:30.
Q: To clarify: The police addressed the crowd that was coming forward behind that front row of cars, which was a separate group from the one that was right in front of the stage. Correct?
The matter is under investigation. I’m not going to comment on … I want to know how that crowd formed, where it came from. Was it an accident? Or was it something that was allowed to happen?
Q: In front of the stage, you mean?
Q: Were you surprised at how strongly the governor responded? And then, after that, the health commissioner?
Well, I hadn’t seen any of those images that the governor saw until they were sort of tweeted out. And I certainly understand the governor’s reaction. I would’ve reacted the same way. That’s completely unacceptable. And I’m disturbed by those images as well, and I’m disturbed by what I believe were violations of the limitations on gatherings, and limitations under the permit. There were a lot of safeguards in this permit.
So I’ve worked very hard to follow all these guidelines, and keep people safe. And I have worked with other municipalities, and with the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association. And I haven’t taken a single day off during this pandemic. So for five months, every day, every night, every weekend, I have been working on helping keep people safe.
And the fact that I involved myself in this event, believing it was charitable, believing it was safe, and believing the organizers would follow all of the rules — I’m extremely upset. I’m extremely upset. And the governor’s done a great job keeping us safe. And he has a right to be upset.
I think as we learn more about how this happened, why it happened, I think a different story will emerge. But we’ll just have to wait for that. And I think people will then understand more clearly. And we’ll be able to make changes to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Q: Do you regret the optics of participating in it now after the fact?
Hindsight’s 20/20. I’m open as to participating in charitable events. Normally in the summer, my schedule is just filled with events.
… Of course I regret that I participated. I had no idea that this was going to happen. Should I have expected this to happen? Well, some people will say, “Yeah, you should’ve known.” I’d actually never heard of The Chainsmokers before this event. But I should have known that this would draw a large crowd. Of course, that assumes that the problem was caused by an uncontrolled crowd moving forward, right? That I should’ve ignored the experts who reviewed this permit, and said, “I don’t care what you say. I don’t think it can be done safely.” When they are telling me that it meets the governor’s guidance for a safe event. And that there are proper protections in place.
So, now, put yourself in my shoes: You’re being asked to participate in what you’re being told is a charitable event to raise money for important causes. That it meets all of the state guidance. It had all the permits necessary. Do you say, “No, I’m not going to do it anyway”?
Of course now, in retrospect, as I look at how much money was actually going to charity, as I look at what actually happened, yeah, of course I wish I never did it. I wish I was never involved.
… We ought to be able to do drive-in concerts. I have a lot of friends who are musicians. They would love to be able to perform. They would love to entertain. Lots of people would love to enjoy a musical event. Can we do it safely? I believe if the guidance is followed, it could be safe. How big it is, does it become more unsafe if you make it larger? I think it’s how you structure it, how many guards you have, or the people actually enforcing the rules.
… Now, through executive order, I can say, drive-in movies or drive-in concerts, even though the state allows them, I could say, “No more. We’re not going to permit them.” Or I could say, “During this emergency period of the pandemic, we will not allow special events with more than 500 people.” Or whatever it is.
Q: Is that something you’re considering?
I’m considering it. But right now, the way the law is written, the police can deny it. The policy can deny it or vet it if they feel it won’t be safe. They already have that power … the police are telling me they don’t need me to issue that executive order. That they can make this determination.
… But I need to better understand what happened here. What happened here? And that is under investigation right now.
Q: What are the potential repercussions for the organizers of the event?
Obviously, there’s a difference between violating and knowingly violating. But I can’t comment on that. I really can’t comment. It’s a subject of an investigation. … But, ultimately, depending upon if a crime was committed, typically a judge then would determine the penalty.
Q: What do you see as repercussions for the town? And in some instances, the village now. Because I think there’s a concern now that the village is coming under closer scrutiny as a result of this.
So, first, the village has been under close scrutiny prior to this event. Right? So there’s been some concern that have been raised about Southampton Village and whether the guidelines are being met. So the establishments in the village obviously have to conform. The guidance has changed. You have to serve food with alcohol. There’s a certain capacity that you’re allowed in your indoor area.
They did cancel the “Southampton in the Street” event for this Saturday, I believe. I had actually requested they do that, to the mayor. The town’s police department, the police chief, reached out to [Village Police] Chief [Thomas] Cummings to offer any assistance if needed with enforcing these things. Ryan Murphy from our Public Safety office — I asked him to reach out to the fire marshal in the village, to see if they wanted any of our assistance in designing the event, redesigning the event to better promote social distancing. The chief has suggested some changes in design, the police chief, to better promote social distancing.
… So, I think the governor is certainly aware of some concerns in the village. These are not things that have arisen since the concert or because of the concert. This is a separate concern. I received a separate letter about this from the health commissioner.
And typically town supervisors really don’t get involved very much within a village, even though it’s part of the town. The mayor has his own emergency powers as a separate emergency declaration in the village. There’s a Village Board, there is a Village Police Department. But I have involved myself now, because of the governor’s concerns, and because of the health commissioner’s concerns. … That’s highly unusual for me to do something. Last night, I patrolled the village. I went to about five or six locations, making sure that at least in my view, the places were complying with the guidelines. … That, I can tell you, in my 27 years of government, that is highly unusual for a town supervisor to involve himself at the village level. So, yeah, I’m exploring what powers I have.
Q: Is the mayor welcoming your involvement?
No, not really. So I’ve reached out to the mayor. And we’re conversing. I’m trying not to step on the mayor’s territories. I’m trying to be cooperative. Clearly, the governor and the health commissioner are holding me accountable for what happens in the village as town supervisor. And the police, Southampton Town Police, are New York State peace officers. And they certainly can write tickets in the village. Typically, though, they will do that maybe if there’s an egregious situation. Or they see a car speeding, maybe they’ll pursue somebody into the village. They certainly can write tickets in the village.
But typically we work cooperatively. When they ask us for assistance, like they did with the protests, we come in. We come in. So we are not trying to usurp the power of the mayor or the Village Board, the Village Police Department. We are offering our assistance, our help. And I’m offering my help. I happen to live in the village as well.
If the governor was going to hold me responsible for what happens in the village, I’m going to have to play a much larger role than I would have anticipated.
Q: Have you talked to the governor directly?
Q: What’s his message been about all this? And what’s your message back to him?
Well, he was concerned about the concert. And I explained to him that we would investigate the matter. And I regretted that it happened. And he brought up the what he perceived as problems in Southampton Village. And I said that I would work to help address those.
… The “Southampton in the Streets” thing, it cannot be a street festival. Street festivals are not allowed. And to use the street itself, to close it off to traffic, and to provide additional areas for the restaurants on those streets to be able to safely set up tables that are more distant and safe, that is perfectly reasonable. And they need to figure out how to delineate those areas better. But not to convert it into a street festival. Street festivals are not allowed. So that has to be rethought the redesigned. And I certainly hope that they will.
The concert, the fallout from the concert … Maybe we still can have safe events. Maybe we can learn from what happened and retool, figure out … People do need recreational activities. People do need things to do. We need to find safe ways to do them. So, if I felt simply that the event as we structured it with all the protections in place was insufficient to be safe, that’s one thing. That’s one thing. And then possibly there is no way then to structure these types of events to be safe. That people are going to violate the rules, and they’re going to congregate. They’re going to want to see the performers closer. And these types of events really, with live performers, not with movies, just can’t be done. They just can’t be done.
I haven’t reached that conclusion yet. Maybe some people would want to reach that conclusion. I think that’s something that you’re going to have to wrestle with based on the information that you see now. … But I think the first step is to figure out what went wrong and why? And then make that decision.
…So, it is unfortunate, it is regrettable. And I am sorry for that. I wish that never happened. But I do want to find out why it happened. Because the people who reviewed it certainly felt that the design that they had approved was safe. I certainly, the promoters certainly … The thing was called “Safe & Sound,” right? And they promoted the fact that the proceeds were going to go to charity. And I was asked to be a part of it, believing it was a safe event and a charitable event. And had received all of the necessary permits, and complied with all of the guidelines.
In retrospect, of course I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish I had no part of it. If we all had a time machine, and we could go back and fix these things.
And should I have had reason to doubt that the people who reviewed it were wrong? That the organizer was wrong? That things would get out of control to some degree? I don’t know. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and say, “You should’ve been able to figure that out. You should’ve been able to figure that out, that even though your police said it was a safe event, and your Public Safety said we have adequate patrol as private security.” That I should’ve second-guessed them. That’s a tough thing to do.