NEW YORK (AFP) – Beach umbrellas are back in garages as temperatures cool, but wealthy New Yorkers are staying in the Hamptons beyond summer, fearful of the pandemic and rising crime in the city.
Robert Moore, a silver-haired digital entrepreneur, has been ensconced in his villa in Amagansett, a stone’s throw from the beach, since March 13 when coronavirus began spreading across New York.
But the 58-year-old has decided not to return to New York, his home of 26 years. He had planned to “live a more nomadic life” anyway but never envisaged leaving Manhattan. The pandemic changed that.
“If I have a choice, I don’t have to be there so I’d rather not be,” Moore told AFP.
As New York became an early epicentre of America’s outbreak earlier this year, the city’s well-off flocked to the Long Island destination, which is just two hours by car from the Big Apple.
“When COVID-19 hit in mid-March, the rental market blew up,” recalled real estate agent James McLauchlen.
“It was just kind of a wild scene. People were bidding USD80,000 for a summer rental that was available for USD50,000. They just wanted to be out here,” he added.
McLauchlen said several homes have sold for USD30 million or more, and demand is outstripping supply with prices rising 15 per cent.
The Hamptons, with its golden sandy beaches and quaint harbour towns, have long been a refuge for New York’s elite, but normally just between June and the end of August.
However, on a recent Wednesday in September, restaurants in Southampton were filling up at lunchtime, much to the delight of owners.
“There’s definitely more people here at the end of September than there normally would be. I hope it continues,” said Don Sullivan, owner of Southampton Publick House which he opened 24 years ago.
The British auction house Phillips has recently opened a branch in Southampton, as has the Hauser & Wirth gallery, as it chases the fortunes that have fled New York.
Retirees, young professionals, families – all age categories are represented as long as they have the means to live in this elite bubble where celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Lopez and Calvin Klein stay every summer.
Ross School, a private school that charges more than USD40,000 a year, welcomed 100 new students at the start of the new school year from nursery through fourth grade, compared to 16 last year, according to head of operations Andi O’Hearn.
Our Lady of The Hamptons, a Catholic school, has 30 names on its waiting list and is “still getting calls every day”, said the principal, Sister Kathryn Schlueter.
“We took as many students as we could,” she said.
Orson Miller, a 24-year-old French student, has been staying with friends in the Hamptons while he finishes a Master’s degree online from New York University.
“As long as nothing is resolved in New York and the situation is not certain, I think people will stay here,” he told AFP.
Natalie Simpson has been living in her Hamptons home since the spring and will be relocating to Connecticut rather than returning to New York.
The 32-year-old mother said coronavirus is a factor, but that a recent crime spike was more concerning.
Since the start of 2020, New York has seen a 40 per cent increase of murders and a 42 per cent uptick in burglaries.
“It’s not really a place where we want to raise a child anymore, even though that was fully our plan,” Simpson explained.
With tennis, horseback riding, golf and sunsets on the beach, those in the Hamptons experienced a pandemic very different from people who remained in the Big Apple.
Moore’s eldest son, a recent graduate, chose to stay in Manhattan for work.
“I feel for my son, I feel for young kids, I feel for families that don’t have the ability that we do,” said Moore.
“We’re very fortunate. There’s a lot of people that don’t have that luxury.”
With New York’s cultural life also at a standstill and restaurants operating with limitations, many fear New York has changed forever.
“It’s never going to be the same and that’s a little sad,” said Moore.
But not everybody is ready to give up on the city that – until recently, anyway – never slept.
“I’m missing New York and I’m kind of looking forward to spending a little more time there,” said Lori Reinsberg, a 61-year-old art dealer who has been living in the Hamptons since late May.