Fire Island, Two Weeks Later: COVID, FOMO, Risky Business
It’s been two full weeks since Independence Day Weekend, when throngs of gay travelers descended on The Pines to party and cavort on the beaches, often sans masks or social distancing, provoking much consternation on social media and among the locals. Although there were no major mass gatherings scheduled for the holiday, (except the traditional Low Tea and the Blue Whale’s capacity-limited Show Tunes Sunday), would-be revelers were undeterred in their quest to burn off pent-up energy from months of lockdowns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They came across the Great South Bay in their hundreds, with at least one individual known to have signs and symptoms of the virus, joining them aboard the Ferry for the half-hour crossing. That was former flight attendant Corey Hannon, who ignited a firestorm of rage by first posting a very inflammatory Tweet, in which he lashed out at those who criticized his indifference. Hannon wrote, from Fire Island:
“I did have COVID, everyone knows I had COVID, and you know what I did? I sat in my f***ing bedroom and quarantined myself for eight f***ing days,” he said.
“I suffered through COVID, and now I’m out celebrating,” Hannon continued. “So go f*** yourselves. I hope all of you get f***ing COVID.”
Of course, upon returning home, Hannon quickly issued an apology for his behavior, but by then the horse had long since galloped away from the barn. Yes, Fire Island is an annual rite of summer for young (and not-so-young) gay men from all over the New York City area, and I have no question in my mind that the stresses of dealing with the COVID horror show that has assailed us since last winter, drove many to its alluring, sandy shores. What with all the usual Pride celebrations being cancelled by the pandemic, it must have seemed as though this was the last place that something of summer could be salvaged, and therefore, heedless of the risks, the migration from city streets to suburban surf began in earnest on July 3.
Things started slipping from there. Police broke up a huge impromptu beach party the next day, as well as a gathering in the (in)famous Meat Rack that evening, leaving the revelers jonesing for a place to let their hair (among other things) down. As Saturday became Sunday, the restless crowds returned to the beach, or the Canteen, and other little nooks to pass the time.
As the sun slipped over the horizon, people started looking for a spot to party before their inevitable Monday morning return home. The place upon which they eventually fell was a time-share operated by celebrity chef Stephen Daniello. Whether by design or accident, eyewitnesses state about 45–50 of them filled the pool deck and living room of the residence, as its host slept in the basement, apparently unaware of the goings-on. “I was exhausted from looking after my guests that weekend,” Daniello tells me, “so after I saw that they were settled in for the night, I went downstairs to sleep.” Daniello couldn’t hear the commotion building, he says, because the basement contained the air conditioning unit and a commercial-grade refrigerator, drowning out the outside noise. “One of my guests was a DJ, who’d brought his equipment with him to entertain my other houseguests,” Daniello noted, “and he somehow ended up providing music for the crowd.”
Upon awakening and discovering the scantily-clad revelers, who wore few, if any masks, and weren’t social distancing, Daniello recalls, he “immediately ended it, and made everyone leave.” Police were called by neighbors, but, according to Daniello, the cops left when they saw that the partygoers had dispersed. Daniello stated that his houseboy began deep-cleaning the residence at once, and the paying guests departed later that morning. “I want to make it very clear,” Daniello said, “that I did not create this gathering, nor did I know it was happening until I woke up. Somebody posted a party at my house — I don’t know who — and everybody showed up. This is not something I would do during a pandemic.”
Despite criticism of this and the other gatherings (and all other such possible events have been pre-empted by local authorities for the rest of the season), amid public outcry, there is one other aspect of that weekend that might be overlooked — and it’s a sobering reminder of reality. In the two weeks since, the number of COVID-19 cases on Fire Island has risen from 513 on July 4 to 776 on July 16, the last date for which numbers are available from the Suffolk County Health Department. That’s half again as many cases as before the weekend began. As much as the psychological toll of lockdown compels us to spring forth when summer beckons, it’s still worth considering that this year’s seaside temptations are really a siren call, luring us to our possible doom.
“COVID Corey” was just one element of risk on the island over the holiday weekend. People threw caution to the winds, and now some are paying dearly for their devil-may-care attitude. If we are to get through this modern-day plague, we’re going to have to find balance between our natural inclination to be together in groups, to huddle in close quarters, to be sexually adventurous, with the even more natural inclination to stay alive. (Nobody wants to frolic naked in the Rack or at the Belvedere more than I do, but I want to stay off a ventilator even more.) One weekend on the beach could be your last, but for the application of a little caution. The younglings will have to grow up just a little bit faster this year.