In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, many New York City residents have sought refuge from the epicenter of the disease by travelling to the East End of Long Island. On March 27, 2020, several East End leaders, including leaders from the Town of Southampton, Town of Southold, Town of Riverhead, Village of Westhampton Beach, Village of North Haven, Village of Sagaponack, Shinnecock Nation, and Village of Greenport sent a letter to Governor Cuomo (Supervisor-Mayor-Letter-to-Cuomo-on-coronavirus-3-20) seeking limitations on non-essential travel to the East End from the New York metropolitan area. Specifically, the letter stated,

“Local leaders across New York State are doing everything they can to slow the incidence of new cases of COVID-19. The New York City area is considered a “hot spot” for the virus due to the high incident rate and the number of new cases. The NY City area now has approximately 1/3 of all the confirmed coronavirus cases in the USA. With “non-essential” employees directed to stay home, our East End communities are seeing a surge in population as seasonal residents are seeking to leave the NY metropolitan area and spend this period of “social distancing” in their summer home communities. As leaders of East End Towns, Villages and Tribal Government, we are growing increasingly concerned with our local ability to manage the added strain to our local healthcare system, food markets and other essential businesses needed to maintain the health and safety of our residents.”

On March 28, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a travel advisory to residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut stating, “due to extensive community transmission of COVID-19 in the area, CDC urges residents of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to refrain from non-essential travel for 14 days effective immediately.”

The letter from East End leaders further stated, “we are hopeful that most people will follow this self-quarantine recommendation; yet we remain concerned about our ability to manage a significant and sudden increase in population, and the demand for additional health, public safety and governmental services.”

With no formal response issued from the Governor, the Town of Southampton, in a press release dated April 7, 2020, announced it will be initiating a “crackdown” on prohibited, short-term rentals for the month of April. Referencing websites such as Airbnb, VRBO and Homeaway, the Town stated, “many properties are renting by the night or for just the weekend at a time when the community is growing increasingly concerned about new people entering the community from the NY Metropolitan area, the nation’s epicenter for the virus.”

Southampton Town Code §270-9(C) prohibits transient rentals, except in the case where “a determination has been made by the Town Board that local transient housing capacity is likely to be inadequate during a regionally significant event…” For example, the Town Board allowed short term rentals during the U.S. Open golf tournament held at Shinnecock Golf Club in June of 2018. The Code defines a “transient” as “a rental period of 14 days or less.”

In this instance, the Town of Southampton is seeking to protect the health and safety of its citizens by enforcing the existing law. Having declared the Ordinance Enforcement Division essential, the Town seeks to “crackdown on short-term rentals occurring in April during the period of the State emergency order” which runs through April 29, 2020.

Town Code §270-19(A) sets forth the penalties for violating the rental law punishable by fines as high as $15,000 or imprisonment not to exceed a period of six months, or both. Town Code §270-19(A)(3). Notably, Town Code §270-19(B) provides the authority for the Town to potentially collect substantially more than the fines listed in the Code, stating, “additionally, in lieu of imposing the fines authorized in § 270-19A, in accordance with Penal Law § 80.05(5), the court may sentence the defendant(s) to pay an amount, fixed by the court, no less than the applicable minimum statutory fine permitted under § 270-19A nor more than double the amount of the rent collected over the term of the occupancy.”