In normal times, perhaps these two little words go without saying in your world. Or perhaps they are a phrase you use to calm your aggressive dog. Or perhaps they are an insult to your worldview if you believe this planet is rotten to its core and needs to be shaken on its head, not treated with kid gloves.
But right now, this simple little request is a matter of self preservation. And it is also a matter of the preservation of the society in which we were raised.
There’s been more than a little anger on the East End over the past few weeks, as people who have the means to escape New York City descended on our shores.
We’ve heard panic among people who believe these New Yorkers, with whom locals have long shared a symbiotic and not necessarily healthy relationship, are diseased and are infecting our community. This is just rubbish.
The initial data when testing for Covid-19 came online showed that the disease was already widespread throughout Suffolk County, with the highest concentrations in year-round communities on the west end of the county. The data to date shows a spread on the East End more consistent with areas where low-income year-round residents who are more likely to work in essential local businesses live.
The New Yorkers who fled Manhattan weren’t the sickest New Yorkers. They were the healthiest city residents, with the greatest means to protect themselves from this disease.
We’ve heard slightly less hysterical accounts, especially on the South Fork, of rich folks employing their household servants to clear out grocery aisles of all the available food, and of worry that escaped New Yorkers will overwhelm our local hospital emergency rooms. The grocery store hoarding is just rotten. You should all knock it off. The hospital part remains to be seen.
So these two little words are first addressed at our visitors: Be Nice. If you didn’t get the message before the East End’s leaders sent a request to Governor Cuomo to ban travel from the city to here, it seems you’re getting the message now. The East End is not your personal isolation zone, and you’ve gotta show some respect for the people who were here before you arrived. Judging from the cars we’ve seen driving around the past few days with no license plates at all, it seems some of you out there are already aware of the anger you’ve incited.
But we will not get through this crisis if we continue to glare at one another through the tinted windows of our vehicles and hurl dirty gestures at passing luxury cars with Jersey plates. East Enders can’t one-up metro drivers on dirty gestures. There’s no point in us even trying.
Regional leaders are quick to point out the futility of a proposed travel ban to the East End, and they are right. The new coronavirus is already widespread throughout Suffolk County, with the towns of Huntington, Islip, Babylon and even neighboring Brookhaven all harboring far more disease than we have here. As of April 3, there were more than 1,567 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Huntington and only 40 in East Hampton.
We are still the fortunate ones. We still have the luxury of waking up in a place where the trees and the open bayscapes outnumber the people. We are not struggling to breathe in the fume-laden Bronx air like the millions of native New Yorkers who could not afford to escape their homes.
And few of us can fathom the self-sacrifice of members of the New York City Fire Department, many of whose lungs are already compromised from working on the pile down at the World Trade Center, still rushing in to answer thousands of calls for medical assistance each day.
After September 11, 2001, the East End welcomed fleeing New Yorkers with open arms. We all loved New York and were proud to be able to volunteer to help in the weeks and months after that tragedy. What changed?
This particular crisis isn’t like a hurricane or an act of terror, which happens over the course of a day or so and leaves us all reeling in the aftermath. This is happening in slow motion. We haven’t yet seen the worst of it, but we know, to some extent, what we are in for from seeing what has already happened in other countries.
As we’re writing this, we have weeks of anxiety and fear ahead of us before we even see the worst. We know more deaths are coming, but we don’t know yet who will die, and that’s even more of a call to live with humility and compassion, and, yes, to be nice.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear,” said former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose sentiment was echoed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in one of his recent daily briefings on the pandemic.
Railing against the wealthy is irrelevant in this moment. It’s a sunny day East End pastime, but this isn’t a sunny day.
We have not yet reached the worst of this crisis, but there is already much you can do to help make it better. We hope we’ve shared some concrete suggestions in the pages of this month’s print edition. It’s time for us all to put aside the panic and get to work. And while you’re at it, be nice. Be kind. And be strong. We are all in each others’ hands.