Memorial Day weekend is a line of demarcation for the South Fork, a moment to stop and take stock before diving headfirst into the summer. Needless to say, this is a holiday weekend like no other, and we wanted to take a moment to share our thoughts in this difficult time.
We warned our staff in a companywide email on March 10 about potential fallout from an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in New York State, where a new front line in the world’s battle against an invisible respiratory disease was starting to emerge. There were conflicting reports, and what was happening at one end of America was far different than what we would see in our own backyard.
It has been less than three months — 11 long weeks — since that day, and our news coverage has shifted almost entirely to coverage of COVID-19 and the economic, social and emotional fallout from this unprecedented health crisis.
Our coverage has continued to focus entirely on our local communities — the core of our mission as a community media group. Watching CNN or Fox News early on wouldn’t have given you the slightest hint at what was happening inside Stony Brook Southampton Hospital or on the front lines at Peconic Bay Medical Center, or in local nursing facilities.
In early March, we reported on 22 students who arrived at the Stony Brook Southampton campus and were placed in quarantine after returning home from studying abroad in Europe. Late in the day on March 10, after we warned our staff about possible local implications, we posted a first story about closures and cancellations — courts, village and town halls, parks and playing fields, and an announcement from Stony Brook Southampton Hospital that patient visitation was suspended until further notice.
The situation escalated, of course, and on March 11 we spoke with leaders of local school districts about some precautionary measures they were taking to protect our children as the number of cases of COVID-19 grew to 423 across the country, 173 in New York State — and just one in Suffolk County.
On March 14, we reported a conversation with State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who warned about a lack of testing capacity and encouraged greater communication from our government leaders. Reports from New York City hospitals painted a dire picture, but a conversation, posted on March 23, with Robert Chaloner, the chief administrative officer of Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, gave readers a detailed look inside the hospital, where cases were growing but the situation was under control.
By late April, New York City was ravaged by COVID-19, and national media outlets were reporting about a mass exodus to the East End of Long Island, and to “the Hamptons” in particular. Some of that reporting caused unnecessary division. Our stories included conversations with local real estate agents about a suddenly booming rental market, and reports on scenes inside local supermarkets, along with almost daily updates about the health care system.
“The fears of the South Fork becoming the state’s next coronavirus hot-spot and locals being left to die because the hospitals were overstuffed with urban refugees ahead of them on the illness bell curve, have proven wholly unfounded,” reporter Michael Wright wrote on April 23, countering a narrative that had taken hold elsewhere. “The East End has lagged far behind the rest of downstate New York, and local hospitals have so far absorbed the rise in COVID-19 cases with room to spare.”
And yet, just 68 days after we reported that first case, the count was 42,624 in Suffolk County, with 1,754 deaths related to the virus.
From the first moments of this crisis, we were there, providing reliable facts and essential context to help local readers process the unthinkable — and resist the urge to fall into despair. We’ve told stories of hope and incredible generosity, even as we kept track of the grim toll the virus is taking. The state calls our staff “essential” workers. We think that’s exactly right.
The impact from the health crisis on our local economy has been severe, and earlier this month we hosted a Virtual Express/Press Sessions event with leaders from the business community to discuss best ways forward. We included the coverage in a special section on Business & Finance last week, where we also profiled more than two dozen local businesses on their response to the crisis and their outlook for the future.
“Leaders aren’t born, they’re made,” Joe Campolo, a local attorney and a panelist, said during the May 7 sessions event. “They’re made by the times that they exist in and how they rise to the occasion.”
Another Express Session, “Reenvisioning Main Street in the Time of Coronavirus,” is planned this Thursday, May 21, and will focus on discussions with local government leaders and business owners about how we safely reopen our downtown centers.
As your community newspaper, we will continue to provide opportunities for people to connect to local businesses and government leaders through our sessions, newspapers, websites, or through a new upcoming podcast series.
The Express News Group includes newspapers that have been covering the South Fork of Long Island for a combined 280 years. As we stand here today, facing a Memorial Day weekend like no other, we are grateful for the support we have received from readers, advertisers and friends, while we also battle to survive through an incredibly difficult time.
It’s in times like these — in times of crisis — when you realize the importance of your local community. As your network of friends becomes smaller, and the community around you is temporarily closed off, that circle of people you trust and count on becomes more important than ever.
With that in mind, we’re grateful today for business leaders like Ted Conklin, the owner of The American Hotel in Sag Harbor, who has advertised every week since the crisis began, despite being closed entirely; and to Richard Warren, the owner of Southampton-based InterScience, and a good friend, who has done the same. We’re thankful for Buzz Chew, a local car dealer that has sponsored restaurant pages every week, allowing us to provide discounted advertising rates to dozens of local restaurants offering takeout and delivery.
We recognize community groups like the Sag Harbor Partnership, which is running full-page ads highlighting the efforts of the Sag Harbor business community, and we are grateful for each and every business that has continued to advertise and support us during the last three months.
We’re especially thankful for our thousands of subscribers — some whose families have been reading these papers for generations, some who signed on in the midst of our most difficult stretch as a show of support — and to the donors who have given so generously, because they believe in the mission of community journalism. We are grateful to those who look to our websites, 27east.com and sagharborexpress.com, for daily updates and share that information across social media platforms.
We are here today, on a weekend meant for remembering those lost to war, fighting a different kind of battle, one that has reached every corner of our society and economy. We are all fighting it together, shoulder to shoulder.
We remain committed to our mission — to give our communities relevant local and regional news coverage, and incisive commentary — and will continue to look to you, our local businesses, our subscribers, readers and community leaders to support us in turn as we work through this crisis, together.
One fine body…