When the mood strikes, Judi Desiderio hops on her bike and cycles down Gerard Drive in East Hampton, taking it all the way down to the water.

The ride was once relatively deserted during the off-season months — the promise of warmer days, and the crowds that come with them, wafting in the springtime breeze.

Except, the crowds are already here.

Across the East End, what were once seasonal neighborhoods are now bursting with life, evidence of a recent exodus out of New York City by second homeowners and renters desperate to live more comfortably and simultaneously escape the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis — despite pleas from public health officials to shelter in place.

Though the initial fervor has quieted down, local lawmakers and real estate agents are now left wondering whether the literal move will be a permanent one, referencing the similar — yet largely temporary — migration that followed September 11.

“I see it as a welcome change in what’s been going on out here over the last three, four years with short-term rentals,” said Ms. Desiderio, the CEO of Town & Country Real Estate. “I’m happy to see, when I look around my neighborhood, the houses that I thought were abandoned with the lights on, and I see people jogging and bicycling and skateboarding. It’s just wonderful. It’s like California.”

Gerard Drive in East Hampton. Dana Shaw photos

The Exodus

Even before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a stay-at-home mandate on March 20, thousands of affluent second homeowners packed up their belongings and fled to the East End in the face of the novel coronavirus.

“Obviously, summer came early this year, if you will, and it came with the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. “But clearly, things are not business as usual, and it doesn’t feel at all like summer season right now.”

East End populations now at summertime capacity are coming at a cost, government officials explained, citing empty shelves at grocery stores that are unable to match demand, increased garbage at waste management facilities, as well as beaches and local parks, and heightened tension between year-round locals and seasonal visitors.

But perhaps the most concerning, when considering the containment of the virus, were the lively Main Streets as the diaspora kicked off during an unseasonably warm March weekend, recalled Sag Harbor Village Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy.

“Usually we pat ourselves on our back at how lucky we are that we have such a vibrant, wonderful Main Street. And that weekend, we were a little freaked out about our vibrant, wonderful Main Street,” she said. “It was just as many year-round residents, as well. It just suddenly felt like it had doubled — because it had. So that was tough and scary.”

With stricter social distancing guidelines in place, Ms. Mulcahy has had a slight change of heart, she said, especially as she fields more and more calls from recent transplants who are eager to help the local community.

“It is what it is,” she said. “I cannot say to any person who owns a house here, ‘Oh, don’t come.’ It’s their house and they have every right. I did find, and I do find, the people who are gouging prices for April and May [rentals], I don’t think it’s necessary and yet they’re getting it, so that’s what capitalism is all about.”

She sighed, and added, “I do like driving around at night in the semi-winter, spring, and seeing the lights on at the houses. I like being in a full-time community without it being quite as crazy as summer. So I think that part is nice.”

The Impact On Rentals

While local communities are settling into a new sense of normalcy, population-wise, real estate professionals are scrambling to keep up, according to Diane Saatchi, a licensed associate real estate broker with Saunders & Associates.

“Right before the stay-at-home order was issued, there was a real rush on people looking for rentals here. It seemed almost like a frenzy,” she said. “People couldn’t get here fast enough. There were bidding wars on rentals, owners got really excited and started offering up their houses, and homes were suddenly getting closer to season prices. That quieted down really quickly.”

While the influx has slowed, it hasn’t stopped entirely — only temporarily stalled due to a lack of rental inventory, as some nervous homeowners pull their listings and other future visitors bail on their leases, with prospective renters waiting less patiently in the wings.

“I’ve come up with an analogy over the last week: I keep feeling like I’m looking for a parking space in New York,” Ms. Saatchi said. “If you look really carefully, you could see somebody pulling out and be right there and get it. When a house becomes available, you have to be the person right behind it to get it.”

But if they want it, they have to grab it sight-unseen. Earlier this month, Mr. Cuomo reclassified real estate as an essential business, with a catch: brokers can only show homes remotely.

“Right now, we’re kind of crippled because New York State has said we cannot do face-to-face showings,” Ms. Desiderio said. “People will rent a house without seeing it, but they certainly will not buy it without seeing it.”

With no in-person showings allowed, the shift has led to increased frustration within the industry, leaving agents to field anxiety from both homeowners and prospective buyers and renters, while grappling with their own financial uncertainty.

“The emotional toll on brokers is nothing like what people in hospitals are feeling by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re having to do work in a different way,” Ms. Saatchi said. “We don’t have the information the way we usually have it, and we’re dealing with people who are also in a difficult position as they get their house ready and new people move in, and people look for houses.”

That said, the rental market is booming two months before the height of the season officially starts. “Net total, I think the summer will probably turn out to be equal,” Ms. Saatchi said, “but the time from March through June will be a lot more rental business where we never had it before.”

After recently cracking down on short-term rentals in Southampton Town, Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he anticipates a return to full-season, or at least month-long, leases, a sector of the market that had lost steam with the rise of online booking platforms such as Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO.

“That portion of the rental market was drying up — those who wanted to rent for a month — but I think that’s come back now,” he said. “People are looking for longer-term rentals to relocate, even if it’s for a month out here, knowing that they’re gonna have to be at home somewhere anyway. Rather than being in a New York apartment, maybe being in a Hamptons home where they can walk along the beach, or enjoy more scenic beauty, is desirable. That’s what I’m hearing, that there is a lot of activity in the rental market.”

But some experts say the uptick in off-season rentals is a mere phenomenon — an isolated, one-time event that the industry should not come to expect, or rely upon, explained Paul Brennan, executive manager of Hamptons sales at Douglas Elliman.

“There’s the short-term windfall, if you will, which really I don’t think is that big a deal. That’s not gonna happen next year,” he said. “But long-term, given the fact that it’s extending longer than anyone thought, I think people are perhaps thinking now that if they own here, they are pretty smart — and if they don’t, maybe they should own here because it is a beautiful safe haven. And where else would you want to be but in the Hamptons, if some disaster struck in the city?”

Déjà Vu? Perhaps Not

For many locals who were on the East End during the September 11 terrorist attacks, they remember the fallout vividly. The influx from New York to the Hamptons was urgent. Schools rapidly accepted new students. And the region was noticeably busier — until it wasn’t.

Little by little, some families did trickle back to the city, while others established new homes for themselves here. Whether the same will happen post-COVID-19 is impossible to say — until the longer-term impact of the virus on the economy, and the housing market, becomes more clear.

“Just as we had families move out at 9/11, I think we’re gonna see a lot of people moving out here because they’re finding they can do their work from afar and they have a backyard and a nice life,” Ms. Mulcahy said. “Our secret’s out.”

Sag Harbor Main Street.

Across the board, real estate professionals do expect an eventual surge in sales, but not until the economy rights itself and buyer faith is restored in the stock market.

“On a positive note, yes, rentals are up and it has been unusually active this time of year,” said Geoff Gifkins, regional manager at Nest Seekers International. “On the other hand, sales have halted during this shutdown, with many buyers putting a pause on their purchase to see the extent of the impact. The Hamptons will be a sought-after destination this summer, as many have already abandoned plans to travel overseas.”

Summertime rentals are already reflecting that, with some East End homeowners attempting to nullify signed leases — in a move to use their houses themselves — while vacationers are trying to pull out of their plans, unsure the stay-at-home order will be lifted and, more importantly, if life on the East End will resemble what they’ve come to expect.

“People ask me if they’re gonna be able to get to their house in July. I don’t know,” Ms. Saatchi said. “If they’re gonna be able to play golf this summer? Probably, but the clubhouses probably won’t be open. Whatever this ends like, I think it’s not gonna be anything that’s familiar to us. It will be a new normal. I’m trying to be comfortable embracing the unknown.

“I know a lot of brokers are saying the market’s gonna rebound and be terrific,” she added. “With my entire soul, I hope they’re right. I do think that real estate is about shelter and it’s not about necessarily the economy, because people need a house regardless of the economy. But our second-home market is more tied up with the stock market in many ways than shelter. When people are feeling like they’re rich and exuberant, they’ll spend money on houses. If they’re not, they won’t.”

Looking Ahead

Whether the recent exodus will be a permanent move is pure speculation at this point, the experts agree, though they are torn on what could be the ultimate answer. Some expect the scale of the pandemic to be more persuasive than an isolated terrorist attack, while others can’t imagine city-dwellers leaving their lifestyle behind.

“The inventory’s there, and there’s certainly people thinking about buying,” Mr. Brennan said. “But who knows, at the end of the day, whether renting will translate into people actually buying. I know they’re thinking about it, just like we’re talking about it, so I think they’re in that phase.

“When things go back to normal, people have a tendency to have a built-in forgetter and usually go back to their old habits and old ways,” he continued. “So who knows? They’re thinking about it now, but whether it actually happens at the end of the day, I think actions will speak louder than words. I’m sure people are feeling housebound and ready to get back and do their lives again, so it might be a year or so before we really know what the impact has really been.”

The economic blow to the area will be undeniable and inescapable, Mr. Schneiderman said, and he considers the sudden surge of affluence into the community as potentially beneficial.

“Ultimately, having second homeowners here may bring additional funds into the local economy, which may help people get through this situation,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “There’s an awful lot of people unemployed right now. At some point, life has to get back to normal, and we’re gonna have a real challenging time economically, but maybe having the influx of capital that these people will help our restaurants and retail businesses. It may be a positive thing to the local economy.”

Looking ahead, local lawmakers and brokers say they are concerned about the current and looming ramifications of COVID-19, from stress on resources to environmental and tourism impacts — questioning whether a summer season will exist at all, set against a backdrop of shuttered Main Streets and closed beaches.

“It’s really uncharted territory and I don’t think anybody has a clear idea of how this is going to work out at this point,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “But I feel that it is going to be okay in the end, but it’s gonna be kind of bumpy here for a while, and people need to be patient. They need to help each other out, and come together.”

As published in the Southampton Press

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