Law enforcement, code enforcement, and public safety departments in the Town of Southampton play a major part in protecting the public against the COVID-19 pandemic. They are tasked with ensuring residents and businesses are obliging by town code, and oversee the implementation of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s ever-changing executive orders.
“What we’re doing for the public is vast,” Southampton Town Police Department Chief Steven Skrynecki said. “Everyone in this township has a critical role to play if we want to get through this with the least amount of complications and hardships as possible.”
This begins for the chief with protecting his force.
“If we are not safe and healthy,” he said, “we cannot help the public.”
To date, several members who were sick have since returned to work. Currently, there are one detective and one court officer out with a positive novel coronavirus diagnosis.
“They’re doing well. They’re recovering at home,” Skrynecki said. “They don’t require any hospitalization, thank God. Their symptoms vary from day to day, and we’re in touch with them constantly to ensure they have what they need.”
In order to protect the officers while limiting the spread, they wear N95 masks and face shields, gloves, and Tyvek suits. Skrynecki said there have been two instances, which he called the “most complicated thing for us to manage,” where officers responded to calls involving members of the public who tested positive for COVID-19.
Protective gear was worn in the first instance where medical attention was required for the suspect, but officers were not ready when a violent individual last week had to be tased to be brought under control.
“We were inside the home,” Skrynecki said. “Sometimes we’re in situations where officers can be in harm’s way, even before the virus, and this was a situation like that. Officers are not always thinking about their protection first, but controlling the environment as they normally do. We did have a bit of a slipup there, but the two officers are out right now not testing positive, but being quarantined as a precaution as a result of that confrontation.”
Public Safety & Emergency Management Administrator Ryan Murphy said his department has been working with the state and county as they begin experiencing personal protective equipment shortages.
“As the virus spreads across America, we’re all drawing down on the same system, competing for supplies, vetting vendors,” he said. “I ordered 10,000 surgical masks expected to be delivered next week. Suffolk County is also releasing more supplies. We put in supply requests from them, and delivered N95 masks, surgical masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer to the Shinnecock Indian Nation as well to support their feeding efforts and health clinic.”
Skrynecki said officers are always on patrol to ensure compliance with the laws, and said there’s been a general acceptance of the rules to-date. His department works closely with Murphy, covering different areas of enforcement. The police department oversees essential businesses, social distancing regulations, the prevention of mass gatherings, quarantining, and the recently-imposed mandate of face coverings or masks. The public safety and ordinance department tackles nonessential construction and landscaping.
“We’re at a pinnacle point right now,” Skrynecki said. “It’s important we oblige by these regulations.”
His officers patrol streets during the day and night, also ensuring there’s no burglarizing of or theft from nonessential businesses.
“General crime stats are down, but we’re still concerned,” the chief said. “If someone already not able to do business because they’re not essential has their structure burglarized and inventory stolen, that would be a really tremendous hardship, so we’re being mindful of that.”
He has seen some uptick however in break-ins and domestic issues.
“Spouses are not used to spending so much time together; kids are not home as frequently,” he said. “None of the instances have been super out of control, but we’re seeing increases in that kind of call. People are also calling to know what they can and cannot do.”
Skrynecki said his department has not seen people in a state of desperation just yet, or any crimes normally committed during an economic downturn, but said there could be time for it to get to that level. He believes government assistance has helped on that front, but still warns residents to secure their valuables and ensure car and house doors are locked at all times.
The police department also ensures essential workers are wearing gloves, following social distancing guidelines, and are not serving drinks at the bar while customers wait for pickup orders.
There is a three-step program to get a person or business into compliance. First, is to inform and warn, and two phases of ticketing and shutdown beyond that, if needed. Murphy said, so far, no tickets have been issued.
Many locals say they see or know of companies that are still operating business as usual. Some have even flat out announced it.
“I will employ everyone that shows up to work to support their family,” said an East Hampton builder on The Independent’s Facebook page, when the news first broke that construction was deemed non-essential. “Unfortunately, we have no unemployment, no pensions, no vacations . . . I’m never ashamed of helping others survive.”
Contractors and homeowners cited for violating the rule face up to $10,000 in fines per violation.
Rise In Population
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he’s feared enforcement issues at parks and beaches. Murphy said he hasn’t seen any of that, either.
“A bay constable said some photos of people from the public are showing more congestion on the roadways and in parking lots than on the beaches,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a misinterpretation.”
Some images of six people two feet apart sitting on the sand are of those cohabitating, which isn’t a violation.
The increase in the number of residents has potentially increased the spread of COVID-19, but Schneiderman said there aren’t numbers to back that up.
“It’s hard to say the influx of New York City, metropolitan-area residents have led to a dramatic increase,” he said. “It’s just hitting more densely-populated areas harder.”
As of April 21 there were 447 confirmed cases in Southampton, or 7.73 cases per 1000 people. The highest East End hamlet total is found in Hampton Bays, where there’s 100 confirmed cases, or 7 per 1000. There are 73 confirmed cases, or 15.25 per 1000 in Flanders, and 36, or 12.42 per 1000, in Westhampton. There’s 29 confirmed cases in North Sea, 28 in Springs, and 26 in East Quogue.
“In those areas in particular we need to be diligent,” Skrynecki said. “There have been cases where some have come and spread the virus since they’ve been here, but we’re settling down now. As those people are quarantined, we should be past the point of worry, but what I have concern over are reports of improvement. If you look at the migration from west to east and from upstate in Rochester down to where we are, it’s logical that we’ll be delayed coming out of this. I hope our residents aren’t looking at the news thinking the coast is clear and we can drop our guard. The next few weeks will be very important to us.”
To control the rise, the town has been cracking down on short-term rentals. A person’s minimum stay must be two weeks. Murphy’s department is monitoring sites and listings and sending warnings to rental owners telling them to amend listings or take them down altogether. He said many property owners have amended theirs already.
Murphy said the focus needs to be on not becoming complacent with where the state stands, echoing Skrynecki’s sentiment.
“Don’t watch the news and see the plateauing or falling off of cases in different places and react inappropriately to that, thinking things can go back to normal,” he said. “The hospital system is plateauing, but number of cases remains consistent.”
“Even once we hit a plateau or apex, it’s not going to fall off immediately,” Murphy continued. “We can’t just go back to normal right away, as much as we’d all like to. That’s not the prudent thing or the smart thing to do. We have to continue to act in a precautionary way to let the virus dissipate the way we want it to. We’ll probably see another spike and increase if we don’t. These restrictions are there for a reason.”