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Weekending in an Emergency

Well-off New Yorkers flee coronavirus to a fantasy version of the Hudson Valley

When I was a kid, we called them “citiots.” Weekenders up from New York, always overdressed, maneuvering their four-wheel-drive tanks through the center of town on their way to a modern second home in the woods. The stereotypes were manifold: they were loud and rude; they drove and spent aggressively; they packed fancy restaurants and shopped in the overpriced boutiques gradually crowding out family-run stores. There were darker stories, too. One, possibly apocryphal but often repeated, went like this. Many years ago, two men from the city shot a local farmer while illegally hunting on his property. Frightened, they took the dying man into their car and drove off for help. But they didn’t know where they were going, and so rather than turning left, which would have taken them to Rhinebeck, and the hospital, they took a right, where they finally ended up at a Dunkin’ Donuts.

While I had always known about second-homers, it was only a few years ago that I realized how physically dominant they have become in the Hudson Valley. In need of work, I took a job as a seasonal UPS helper, riding around the woods near my hometown of Red Hook. Mike the driver and I would stop at house after modern, minimalist house, building progressively taller piles of Amazon and Zappos packages that only disappeared come the weekend. The further out we got, the vaster and more impenetrable the houses became, ski chalets with heated floors far from any slope, fenced-in compounds of steel and glass hidden on hilltops. Some of the most isolated properties, and many of the best views of the Catskill Mountains, were owned by people who, at most, lived in them on holidays and weekends.

But now many of those owners have fled to the Hudson Valley, trying to escape the New York City hot zone and its more than 68,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. They are being joined by family, friends, and colleagues planning to hunker down in what they perceive to be a place of beauty and isolation. In an intimation of perhaps greater disturbances to come, the rich are following their lead in absconding to vacation retreats across the country—from California and Idaho to Michigan and Maine—and even around the world.

The further out we got, the vaster and more impenetrable the houses became, ski chalets with heated floors far from any slope, fenced-in compounds of steel and glass hidden on hilltops.

I understand why they’re doing this. Most of those who own a second home are older; many have kids; and, in general, they can afford to weather weeks or possibly even months of isolation making sparing runs to the grocery store or the gas station. Others may be immunocompromised and seeking space far away from other people. Even comparatively spacious New York City apartments and condos have nothing on a modest farmhouse with plentiful fields and woods. Living on these properties, you can go days without seeing a stranger. To an outsider, it must feel like the safest place anyone could possibly be. Without explicit travel bans, making a dash two weeks ago, this week, even right now is eminently possible.

But few, if any, of those who have fled seem to have considered the possibility that they might already be sick or asymptomatic, transporting the disease up to counties that cannot handle the added pressure on their limited health care infrastructure. North of Westchester, which is already experiencing a significant outbreak, the region’s population-to-bed ratio is horrifying: there are just 259 ICU beds between the Hudson Valley and Catskill counties south of the Capitol Region, an area with an estimated population of over 1.5 million as of 2019. The figures get worse the further you break them down. There are just twenty-nine ICU beds (and 692 hospital beds total) for the 294,000 permanent residents of my native Dutchess County; there are nine ICU beds in the single hospital in Columbia County, whose seat, Hudson, has seen a run on Airbnbs during the outbreak. Greene County, where one local official has said that 80 percent of second homes are currently occupied, doesn’t even have a hospital.

COVID-19 has proven especially deadly for the elderly, and it is precisely the oldest counties in the region which have the least capacity for treatment. In Delaware County, further west into the Catskills, almost 25 percent of the population is over 65, and 16 percent live in poverty. There is not a single ICU bed. Similar stories can be told for Columbia—nearly 24 percent of residents are over 65, with nine ICU beds and 192 total—and Greene, where 22 percent are over 65 and 13 percent below the poverty line, with no hospital beds at all. If they become ill, these residents will either travel north to Albany or south to Ulster, Dutchess, and Sullivan counties, which are likely to be overloaded with cases in the coming weeks.

Local officials are scrambling to set up hundreds of beds in college dorms, and Ulster County is hoping to quadruple its current ventilator capacity, which currently stands at twenty-five. But coronavirus is spreading, and fast: in the time since Governor Andrew Cuomo’s PAUSE order took effect on March 20, according to information provided by the county governments, the number of cases in Ulster County has increased from 17 to 382, while Dutchess went from 35 to 1,064, a thirty-fold increase. As former Westchester County Health Commissioner and current Greene County resident Dr. Joshua Lipsman told Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle last week: “If people come, it increases the risk that more people get sick. The more people that get sick, the more likely it is that people get really sick and are going to need medical care and then it isn’t going to be here for them.”

And all this without considering supply chain disruptions or runs on grocery stores that have not been stocked in anticipation of a population influx, particularly not one that could last for months to come. Officials throughout the Hudson Valley and Capitol Region have pleaded with weekenders to stay in New York City. Greene County has asked homeowners to take down short-term rental listings on platforms like Airbnb. Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin went so far as to request a ban on non-essential travel from New York City to other parts of the state from Governor Cuomo. “Their healthcare is not here. Their doctors are not here. Their medical records are not here,” he wrote. “We have enough on our plate right now to keep our people safe without an influx of people from New York City.” Rather than finding their own safe haven, second-homers are likely spreading the virus into another’s.

Of course, they are hardly the first downstaters to bring their presumptions to the region. In the popular imagination, the Hudson Valley has long been a place of Arcadian emptiness. In his most famous stories, Washington Irving transformed a landscape of owners, tenants, and enslaved people into a bucolic paradise of small-holders and wilderness. Many wealthy New Yorkers escaped the perils and pressures of city life for cabins and estates on the river, as did the pioneering naturalist John Burroughs and Matthias the Prophet, who fled scrutiny to—and possibly murdered his patron in—a Sing Sing mansion. Thomas Cole, the groundbreaking landscape painter, often deliberately painted out evidence of human settlement, from farms and roads to the logging that ravaged much of the Catskills in the nineteenth century.

Modern representations of the Hudson Valley on social media and in pop culture have not strayed far from the formula: lone figures in empty frames proliferate, along with unpeopled photos of cute downtowns, mountain landscapes, and river panoramas. Rather than a community, they depict a place that is fundamentally empty, with plenty of room in which viewers can imagine themselves.  Country living accounts coo over antique finds and cute upscale restaurants. If you moved here, they say, you too could live in a house just absolutely filled with dried herbs. Even developers have begun to design housing with social media sharing in mind. Film and television, whether Dirty Dancing or, more recently, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, tend to portray the Catskills as a lackadaisical paradise where carefree vacationers can live out their every whim. And thanks to generous below-the-line tax credits, the area is often literally standing in for any number of other places.

Aspirational stories about finding your dream home and living out your creative yearnings are repeated ad nauseam in the Real Estate sections of publications like the New York Times, underlining a vision of the region as a kind of empty screen onto which all of a city-dweller’s desires—fulfillment, protection, safety—can be projected. Why not start your dream business? Why not invite all your friends to do the same? My home district, NY-19, is a perennial favorite of would-be politicos looking to kickstart careers in politics, shopping for congressional seats as easily as they do second (or third, or fourth) homes.

If you moved here, they say, you too could live in a house just absolutely filled with dried herbs.

These trends have only accelerated in recent years. In the area vomitously dubbed “The Camptons,” increased sales of houses valued at more than $300,000—almost doubling for those over $900,000—have driven up median home values, a development good for homeowners but bad for renters and small businesses struggling to hang onto space in overpriced downtowns. When legacy businesses get throttled by their landlords, it’s often only a matter of time before wealthy downstaters with connections and start-up capital set up their own overpriced vintage shops and fancy cookware stores in the same locations. My fear, though far from my greatest, is that the pandemic will serve as a tipping point, pushing owner-run businesses over the edge, leaving vast swathes of Uptown Kingston and Catskill open for colonization by the weekend crowd.

I understand why people are fleeing to the Hudson Valley with their families. But to make your home in a community is to acknowledge its benefits as well as its limitations. And in the assumption of those fleeing to the region now that the Hudson Valley is safe because it is sufficiently empty, they reveal that they know nothing about the people they are living among. The persistent concerns of people in their twenties, thirties, forties, and beyond are the same here as elsewhere: debt, rent increases, access to health care both mental and physical. I have friends taking care of newborns throughout the crisis, and others whose finances will be pushed to the brink during extended unemployment. Not to mention the challenges facing thousands of Hudson Valley’s year-round transplants—many of them immigrants—who cook the region’s food, stock its stores, work on its many family farms, and staff the hospitals which the spread of coronavirus might overrun.

For all of them, the threat of coronavirus comes not only from the disease, but the stress it puts on pre-existing disparities. The story about the hunters and the farmer I relayed earlier was told to me in many contexts, each with its own moral: know where you’re going. Be safe with a gun. Don’t trespass. But it occurs to me that the crucial choice the men made was not whether to turn left or turn right with the dying farmer in the backseat, nor was it on which property to trespass. The only choice that really mattered was made in New York City, when they decided to head upstate and have a good time hunting, laws be damned. Like Witek in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blind Chance, it was from this flippant choice, made ignorantly, that the entire horror proceeded.

I do not know where this crisis is going, but I fear that for many in the Hudson Valley, the critical choices have already been made—as much by people who have developed, exploited, and commodified the region as by those who have now fled there and cannot imagine that their choice might so direly affect others. The problems facing the region are problems from which most can’t flee—not to second homes, or overseas real estate. The fallout here will remain radioactive for months and possibly years after this outbreak passes, long after the second homes empty out as their owners feel safe returning to New York City—to them, the real world. As the historian and SUNY professor Michael Oberg wrote in a recent reflection: “The cord breaks in the spring of 2020, and nothing for these many people will ever be the same again.”