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 38-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.”
The extravaganzas that add color to this rainbow-hued resort are also canceled. The infamous Pines Party, a three-day beach bacchanal where a partygoer was once evacuated by helicopter for a drug-induced coma, is off. So, too, is the Invasion of the Pines on July 4, when drag queens from neighboring Cherry Grove descend in a blur of wigs and daiquiris. And Bear Weekend is in hibernation.
Further complicating matters, the Sayville Ferry Service, the only way to get there without a private boat, has reduced capacity by 50 percent. And Fire Island officials from neighboring Ocean Beach have urged seasonal homeowners from New York City to stay away, since there are no hospitals on the island.
The seasonal practice of sharing a house with a dozen friends has largely dried up in the Hamptons and the Jersey Shore. But the relatively affluent devotees of Fire Island Pines are sticking to their shares, according to numerous interviews with homeowners and those who have booked stays — even as the coronavirus outbreak endures in the greater New York region.
“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.
“I’m an optimistic person by nature, but I’m very scared about what would happen should there be an outbreak on the island,” said Karl Krumholz, 64, an architect. He lives in Philadelphia the rest of the year with his husband, Dick Limoges, 79, a retired psychiatrist.
The couple bought their four-bedroom, four-bath home on Seaview Walk in 1983 with two other couples (two of the group later died of AIDS), and now rent out the other three bedrooms during the summer, starting at $6,600 for a quarter share.
But while the house was fully booked all 20 weeks of the season last year, he plans to limit that to nine weeks this summer. Only four people will be allowed to eat at the 12-foot dining table, lounge chairs around the pool will be spaced six feet apart, and hand sanitizers have been placed everywhere.
While most houseguests are return visitors, new ones are being vetted carefully. “I had a couple of guys call from Atlanta in April, who wanted to take a quarter share,” Mr. Krumholz said. “They were already going to the gym, and I said, ‘Look, guys, this is not going to fly here, this is the East Coast.”
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.
No Pool Parties
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.
“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.
Andrew Kirtzman, 59, a former owner of the Pines commercial complex, sees another cultural shift. “Traditionally, the island has always served as just a backdrop for this overheated social activity,” he said. “This summer, it’s the natural beauty of the place that necessarily takes precedence in people’s lives because of the need to stay socially distant, though none of this seems important in light of what’s going on in the streets of the city.”
Alcohol and Hot Tubs
On Boys of Fire Island, a Facebook group in which men solicit shares by posting revealing selfies, skepticism reigns on whether social distancing can work.
“I can’t police an entire house and I shouldn’t have to,” wrote one user. “Throw in booze and god knows what into the mix on a hot summer weekend in F.I.P. and let’s see if everyone is able to stick to their commitments.”
Daniel Nardicio, an event producer who hosts a Friday underwear party at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove, was dubious about the ability of people to restrain themselves over time. “They’re already starting to have parties here, whether people like it or not,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can do it and be responsible, but I’m not going to check people’s Covid status at the door. This isn’t Nazi Germany.”
Charles Renfro, an architect who has a three-bedroom home on the Pines, noted that alcohol and hot tubs were a potent mix. “You can add the virus to the Pines, but I don’t think you can take the Pines out of the boys,” he said. “I think people are just ready to take a calculated risk, and there will be gatherings and it will transmit. I think it’s inevitable.”
By Memorial Day weekend those issues were already flaring. Mr. Pagano, of the homeowner’s association, said that his husband was at a gathering of 15 men who had all been to the Winter Party Festival in March, a gay “circuit” party in Miami. where numerous coronavirus cases were later reported (including at least three deaths). Some of the men at the Fire Island gathering were convinced they now had antibodies, although few had been tested.
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.”