By Gwendolyn Craig
Local communities across the Adirondacks are seeing an influx of visitors and second home owners as New York City residents and others flee dense, urban areas with higher rates of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
The early migration, while normally welcomed in the tourism-based economies, has led some local governments and business organizations to put on the advertising brakes. Some Adirondack restaurants have even stopped offering takeout, for fear that newcomers may be carrying the virus.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not revealed an opinion about whether second home owners should head upstate. He did say during a press conference on Thursday that a travel ban was not on his agenda.
“The counties can come with whatever suggestions they want,” he said.
Some are discouraging the return migration, and visitation generally.
It’s a difficult spot for rural, local governments to be in as they grapple with a dispersed health care resources, few or no COVID-19 testing kits, depleted grocery stores and the desires of taxpaying, seasonal residents, many of whom consider the Adirondacks their primary home.
Warren County, home of Lake George, has not asked second home owners to stay away, as Essex County has, but in a news release on Wednesday it did ask people coming up from New York City to self-isolate and to contact the county health department.
Warren and Essex counties have both asked for property owners to halt listing any short-term rentals they may have, as have many other municipalities around the state.
Matt Simpson, town supervisor of Horicon and a Warren County supervisor, said people are returning to the area sooner than in most years. Many of the second home owners in his town are longstanding families that have lived there for generations. Many have their primary residences in the Adirondacks, but leave for Florida in the winter.
“What am I going to tell a 75-year-old?” Simpson said, about one of his town’s residents who winters in Florida. “Tell him he can’t come here for his home?”
In Hague, a scenic town of 854 people on Lake George in Warren County’s northeastern corner, many residents also go to warmer or more populated climes in the winter, and most businesses shut down because they cannot survive without the extra population.
Donna Wotton, director of the Ti Alliance economic development group, said Hague had already been repopulating quickly before Warren County’s decree. After spending several months in California, she returned in mid-March because, like a number of others, she considers Hague her primary home.
“Most of us want to get here because we feel safer and because we don’t want to get stranded for months someplace else,” she said.
Hague has also attracted “people who live in the metropolitan areas around New York City, Philadelphia and Boston who want to get out of there and up here where there is less population and risk, especially if they are at-risk through age, are immune-compromised or have other health issues,” Wotton said.
But she said most of the people in her circles who are returning north understand they are high-risk and have arrived well-stocked with provisions and have self-quarantined. “There’s a great deal of peer pressure to comply,” Wotton said. “Nobody wants to be the one that was careless enough to bring corona to Hague or Ticonderoga. This is such a small community that the person you infect is going to likely be a dear friend and the prospect of causing them harm is daunting.”
Those who have gone through a two-week quarantine are supporting newer arrivals, dropping off groceries or prescriptions. “But even those people are not stepping into Walmart or other places yet,” Wotton said. “So as a community we’re spending time on the phone, dropping things on each other’s porches, and texting a lot.”
Simpson is seeing similar compliance with social isolating in Horicon, a town with a population of about 1,300.
“There’s not a lot of people on the roads,” Simpson said. “They are staying home.”
But even social distancing is not quelling the fears of all local municipalities.
Hamilton County, with a population of less than 5,000 and no hospital within its borders or close by, is hoping people do not visit.
“Hamilton County Public Health and our primary care providers do not have testing kits,” Public Health Director Erica Mahoney said in a news release, which was posted to Facebook on Wednesday. “If you or your family member becomes sick, there will be a delay in health care delivery and follow up services.”
Mahoney noted, too, that visitors using Airbnb or another vacation rental platform should be aware that those properties are not regulated by the state Department of Health, like hotels are. Hamilton County, like Warren and Essex, are asking property owners not to advertise short-term rentals.
“Please understand this is for your protection, plus the protection of anyone who might be entertaining the idea of staying in your rental,” Mahoney said. “Your long-term success will be far greater if the news stories don’t start to revolve around those sickened or trapped without health care in a short-term rental unit.”
Linda Beers, public health director of Essex County, said the county’s access to COVID-19 tests is limited.
“The lower number of confirmed cases in Essex County is very likely the result of reduced access to tests, which is occurring throughout the region,” Beers said in a news release. “We know that we are now facing community spread, so the potential for exposure is a reality for everyone, regardless of travel or other risk factors.”
To help slow the spread, many hotels have closed or remained open to house essential employees like health care workers and state and federal employees. Many real estate offices posted notices that they were suspending vacation rental reservations for the time being.
“We thank them for reducing the risk of the community being exposed,” said Craig Randall, mayor of Lake Placid, in a statement. “We express our sincere appreciation for this and hope the word spreads to others to defer their plans to spend time in Lake Placid until this current emergency has passed.”
Old Forge is also seeing an early flock of visitors and part-time residents to the hamlet in Herkimer County, over the past two weeks.
Winter recreationists were hoping to get a last ski in on McCauley Mountain, and at first, Mike Farmer thought it could stay open. But then the director of the town of Webb’s Tourism Center at Old Forge, saw that even if people were taking the lift one at a time, ski lift operators would be in contact with them, and there was no way to safely social distance them.
The mountain closed.
After Cuomo announced nonessential businesses had to be closed, Farmer saw restaurants rebound, at least a little, by offering take-out.
But his take on the influx of people to Old Forge has changed day to day, and Thursday, he was worried about it.
“Over the weekend, it was the first time our grocery store had been seriously depleted,” Farmer said.
The worry grew as some restaurant owners approached him and said they were serving many people they didn’t know.
“They were trying to stay in business, trying to stay open for take-out, trying to keep a percentage of their staff working, and they found out they were serving so many people that they had never seen before,” Farmer said. “They don’t know who they are, and they just can’t do it. They can’t, in good conscience, put their staff, their selves and families at that kind of exposure risk. And it’s a really tough call.”
Farmer said seasonal residents are a part of the Old Forge community, but if they’re not already in Old Forge, the community would like them to stay away for now.
‘If I was living in Rochester, and I had a second home in Old Forge, I’d much rather be here,” Farmer continued. “What they’re going to find is, services are very, very tight. And I’m telling the same thing to our permanent residents.”
Adirondack Explorer correspondent Tim Rowland contributed to this report.