Is the Party Over on Fire Island?


As a Fire Island veteran, Jory Stiefel had his summer weekend ritual down to a T.

He would leave work on Thursday, hop on the 3 p.m. train from Penn Station to catch the 5 p.m. Sayville ferry and arrive at Fire Island Pines, the hedonistic gay resort off the south shore of Long Island, in time for dinner. Over the weekend, he would hit at least two parties and crawl into bed around 4 a.m.

But not now. “I’ve not stayed up past 10 since I arrived,” said Mr. Stiefel, a 36-year-old software engineer, who fled his Manhattan apartment in March and has been camped out at his four-bedroom cedar-shingled house, a stone’s throw from the harbor. “There’s just nothing to do.”

Indeed, the party on this barrier island, with its fabled history as a hotbed of desire and dissipation, looks to be over this summer. The restaurants are closed for dining. The Pavilion dance club, where throngs of shirtless men would gyrate till dawn every weekend, is on hiatus. And Low Tea, the popular and boozy happy hour at the Blue Whale restaurant, is on hold.

“You used to walk up to Low Tea and kiss 40 people before you got to the bar,” said P.J. McAteer an owner of the Blue Whale. “This was a sex-filled community. Now you can’t walk down the boardwalk holding hands.”

“I’ve had no cancellations,” said Bob Howard, 78, a fast-talking, longtime real estate broker in the Pines.

What has changed is the social scene. Late-night clubbing is out, smaller dinner parties are in. Day-trippers are gone, while weekend jaunts have turned into summer-long, work-from-home stays. Guests are being asked to take coronavirus tests. And houses are forming “quarantine pods” with intimate friends.

On the clothing-optional beaches and car-free boardwalks, designer swimwear has been replaced by fashionable face masks as the summer’s hot accessory.

Whether these measures will keep the coronavirus at bay, however, remains an open question, given the resort town’s hyper-social and sexualized scene.

“I see a rough summer ahead of trying to navigate all this,” said Jay Pagano, the president of the Fire Island Pines Property Owners Association. There were already rumblings over the cloudy Memorial Day weekend. “Somebody was trying to have a party that sounded like it was going to be large-ish, and the police shut it down just as it was supposed to begin.”

The Pines is unique not only for its gay history, but also for a real-estate culture where the vast majority of the 565 houses are leased by large groups of New Yorkers who rent “shares,” paying $6,000 to $25,000 for a quarter share (one week each month for a bedroom).

“The very nature of the shared-house culture means that it’s so back and forth, there’s so much traffic,” said Jack Parlett, a British writer who is working on a book on Fire Island’s literary history. “The thing that makes it affordable for many is the thing that now makes it vulnerable.”

Yet, despite the potential for infection (Will bathrooms be properly sanitized between guests? How many people can squeeze into a hot tub safely? Are salt-and-pepper pots on the dinner table bad?), cancellations have been minimal.

“Anyone who has thought about it, and has two nickels to rub together, wants to get out of town,” Mr. Howard said. “The parade of men looking fabulous on the beach will go on as long as the weather is good.”

So homeowners and “den mothers” (the ones who organize the share) are trying to lay down social-distancing rules.

Despite Mr. Howard’s enthusiasm, the island may be much less crowded this year. Last summer, Mr. Stiefel had 35 guests staying at his house,; Mr. Stiefel and his fiancé, Joshua Judge, were there most weekends. That number is down to 25, affected in part by Los Angeles guests unwilling to fly.

“Unlike last year there are only a few weeks on the schedule that are currently completely full,” said Mr. Stiefel, who purchased his home in 2013 and rents out the three guest rooms. “Normally at this point we would have a full house every week through September.”

Since each of the four bedrooms opens onto the deck, he is less concerned about the challenge of social distancing at home. Still, friends who plan to stay have been asked to take a test for coronavirus if they can. All five guests who stayed last weekend had been tested: three tested positive in March and recovered; two tested negative.

“Obviously that’s not foolproof and it’s not a guarantee, but at least it’s a data point in your risk calculation,” Mr. Stiefel said.

Some homeowners, especially older ones, are taking a more aggressive approach to social distancing.

Since arriving in mid-May, Mr. Krumholz has been heartened by how vigilant visitors are about wearing masks when walking outside, if little else. “Many boys are looking like the Lone Ranger’s wet dream, in tight hot shorts and no shirt,” he said in his Texas twang.

But not everyone is willing to take chances with strangers in the house.

“I’m with four of my closest friends, and we’ve created a pod,” said Justin Blake, 48, a public relations executive who has owned a house in the Pines since 2011. By agreeing to avoid anything but essential contact with outsiders, the five men feel confident relaxing restrictions within the home. “We mingle with each other.”

That means no pool parties, no hot-tub hopping, no dates back at the house.

“It’s going to be hard,” Mr. Blake added. “But it helps that I have a group of friends to enter this pod with because we’ll have some peer pressure to be careful.”

The diminished social calendar has other implications. Many parties are also vital fund-raisers. “The community has a long and important history of raising funds for important causes particularly around H.I.V.,” said Mr. Blake, who typically attends 10 such fund-raisers each summer, including Dancers Responding to AIDS.

Another potential casualty? Diversity. Fire Island has drawn a more diverse mix in recent years, but the virus appears to be setting that back this summer.

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“I think traditionally the Pines’s reputation was that it was predominantly for white muscle boys,” said Faris Al-Shathir, 38, a founder of Boffo, a nonprofit that held an arts festival in the Pines focused on inclusivity. (This year’s festival is canceled.) “There’s a lot more acceptance now of gender diversity, a bigger trans population, and, although it’s still very white, noticeably more brown and black bodies.”

With fewer weekenders and day-trippers, at least until the amenities open up, this summer may resemble the more privileged 1970s, when people like Calvin Klein and David Geffen would spend the season on Fire Island and dinner parties reigned supreme.

“You rented a house for the summer and it was a totally different environment,” said Mr. Howard, the broker, who describes it as the era of the velvet mafia.

While homeowners are settling in for the long haul, the outlook for guesthouses relying on short stays is bleak, in part because meals from restaurants are hard to come by. At the clothing-optional Belvedere Guest House on Cherry Grove, now one of the few black-owned businesses on the island, only two out of 38 rooms were booked in early June when it reopened. “If people can’t go out to eat anywhere, being open isn’t going to do much,” said Julian Dorcelien, 48, the owner.

Greg Scarnici, a D.J. and drag queen performer, had observed a similar thread on the gay dating app Grindr, which he said he checks to see which of his friends are on the island.

“A lot of people are using this safety net of saying, ‘Oh, I got it at the winter party, I got the antibodies,’” he said. “It’s the first time gay men have been happy to say they’re positive since 1980.”



Sahred From Source link Real Estate

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