The COVID-19 pandemic has altered our daily routines and changed thinking to such a degree that one scarcely knows where to start in evaluating its effect on our lives.
Of course, there have been deaths and economic destruction, but there could also be long-lasting effects in society. The crisis could cause our private healthcare system to re-evaluate its longstanding reluctance to build plenty of excess capacity into its facilities.
The wholesale shift toward working remotely could cause companies and organizations to reconsider how many employees they want onsite and whether it is really worth renting that pricey office space downtown or in that toney suburban business park. Ditto our brick-and-mortar schools and universities, which have for the time being shifted to a distance-learning model.
Those changes will be positive if they result in increased productivity and if they help with the bottom line. But there’s one side effect of this pandemic that has especially troubled me recently because its effects could be longer and more destructive.
On social media and in comment threads, I am seeing the wholesale trashing of people from hot-spot cities – mostly New York, but a few from the Boston area – who have evacuated their apartments and condos and taken up full-time residence in their seasonal homes in places like Litchfield County [free registration required] and Berkshire County, Mass.
First of all, the phenomenon is real. I’ve heard reports from realtors in those two counties that inquiries about rentals are at an all-time high. The seasonal homes I pass by every day in Connecticut’s northwest corner and in Berkshire County have vehicles parked in the driveway all week and the lights are on at night. The part-timers from Manhattan who have a place next door to me have been camped out here since their kids’ school closed three weeks ago.
This means there are more mouths to feed, resulting in bare shelves in some supermarkets – a phenomenon I have witnessed firsthand several times. Friends who live in areas that have a low percentage of part-time residents – West Hartford, for example – tell me that shortages are not terribly common in stores there. (Although that could have changed in the scant days since we spoke).
Most of the complaining natives are terrified that the New Yorkers will bring the virus with them and infect those who live in these communities full-time. That is a possibility but if those travelers simply heeded the advice of officials and self-quarantined for 14 days upon arrival, virus spreading should not be a problem. Trouble is, we just don’t know if these travelers are doing that.
The COVID-19 pandemic has succeeded in not only sickening hundreds of thousands of people and killing more than 33,000 – with the likelihood of many more – but it has exacerbated class tensions, not only here but also in the Hamptons, the Catskills, and in Rhode Island, where Gov. Gina Raimondo came up with a scheme – probably illegal – to stop cars with New York plates at the border and knock on doors to find those who made it in.
The phenomenon is also playing out in California and in Europe, where, much to the consternation of the locals, the population of an obscure island off France’s Atlantic coast has doubled, thanks to wealthy Parisians fleeing to safer but familiar environs.
President Donald Trump recently floated the idea of a federal quarantine for the greater New York area, which includes portions of Connecticut. The president later backed off after conferring with advisers and being told in no uncertain terms by Cuomo that it was “preposterous” and equated it to imprisonment and “a declaration of war.” Gov. Ned Lamont was more charitable, suggesting Trump’s words “lacked clarity.”
Notwithstanding the political machinations, I’m very concerned about the long-term corrosive effect this pandemic will have on the already fragile relationship between natives and part-time residents in my neck of the woods. Even before this crisis, the relationship could best be described as a nervous symbiosis. Now it appears to be degenerating into open acrimony.
Natives already resented wealthy New Yorkers for their city ways, their sometimes disdainful attitudes and their willingness to pay inflated prices even for modest properties, causing the cost of housing to rise for everyone and leading to the gentrification of entire towns. This health crisis is making things worse. I’ve heard reports of vehicles with New York plates being keyed in store parking lots and epithets being shouted at New Yorkers going for hikes with their families in local parks.
I for one think those who own property have a right to use that property. Part-timers pay plenty in taxes and demand very little in the way of services. Now if a New Yorker is in the local supermarket, hoarding supplies, ignoring physical distancing protocols and coughing on everyone, then we have an obvious problem. Or if they bring with them an elderly relative, they could easily contribute to the already overstressed healthcare systems in rural areas. I just don’t know how you order them to stay away or, in the case of one town in the Berkshires, begging them not to “travel here seeking isolation.”
Coming up here to escape the contagion isn’t really an act of selfishness, as some have suggested. It’s human instinct to want to protect your family. Just remember to act responsibly when doing so. And please be patient with the locals who are concerned about your presence. You might need them someday.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at email@example.com.
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