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Artillery Row

Palm Beach: The Island that resists death

Covid deaths were only five percent of New York’s

“If you’re not seen at Taboo,” an old Palm Beach saying holds, “you’re not seen in town.” Until restrictions were loosened last week, no one had been seen for some time at Taboo, a storied restaurant operating on chic Worth Avenue since 1941, and fewer people than usual were seen in town. Even in this staid outpost of outsized privilege — a long, thin island off the coast of South Florida that also happens to be my hometown and refuge in these parlous times — the pandemic spectre has played on nerves. To the squealing delight of local Karens, state, county, and town directives of questionable legality and even less common sense closed schools, shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, parks, museums, theatres, and even the town’s fifteen miles of beaches – those broad open spaces so dangerously full of sunshine, salt water, and fresh air that they needed to be swept clean of visitors. Use of a popular walking trail came under threat (mercifully unexecuted) due to concern about what the police described in alarmingly Foucauldian terms as an “unsafe increase in activity.” The final weeks of the town’s glittering social season, including the International Red Cross Ball that has crowned it with varying degrees of panache since 1957, simply evaporated. The Palm Beach Daily News, Florida’s oldest newspaper and known locally as the “Shiny Sheet” because of its high-grade paper does not smudge its genteel readers’ fingers, advised the town’s fine ladies to “put those tiaras back in the vault.” A curfew from 9pm to 6am kept them off the streets and away from Covid-19, which is apparently transmitted more efficiently after dark.

What was it all for? Despite the horrific predictions, inevitable #FloridaMan shaming, and an overly concerned lawyer who dressed as the Grim Reaper to scare people off the beaches when they opened in the northern part of the state earlier this month, Florida’s pandemic-related deaths are only about five percent the number of New York’s. No one knows quite why, but educated guesses hold that sunlight and warmer temperatures inhibit the virus, and that the virtual absence of public transportation, which the standard New Yorker cannot do without, helped to hold the contagion in check. Prohibiting infected nursing home residents from returning to their facilities, an action that New York’s curiously celebrated Andrew Cuomo held to be discriminatory, also likely saved many vulnerable older people who probably care more about breathing than political correctness. Of Palm Beach’s seasonal population of some 30,000, only two residents have died, while only about twenty other cases have been reported.

Palm Beach resists death and its last murder was committed nearly twenty-five years ago

As America’s first purpose-built resort community, Palm Beach resists intrusion. No signs indicate where it is, how one might go there, or that one has arrived. Its signature landscaping feature is high hedges that prevent passersby from seeing what might be happening on the other side. Commercial display and out-of-character renovation are restricted by a web of mercurial town ordinances. The Everglades, Bath and Tennis, and other historic clubs, and even Donald Trump’s parvenu Mar-a-Lago (now his official residence to avoid New York’s punishing state income tax), are unidentified. The town’s lone supermarket, of the Publix chain, is forbidden to announce its presence with the large green sign that all other Publix branches display. As recently as September 2019, when the Island (as residents call it among themselves) was grazed by a hurricane’s heavy winds and rains, non-residents were barred from entering the town.

Palm Beach also resists death. The Island has no hospitals, elderly facilities, funeral homes, or cemeteries. Its last murder, the result of a botched jewel theft, was committed nearly twenty-five years ago. Youth is an obsession. Decades-younger trophy spouses (of both sexes) are common. Sporty midlife crisis cars abound alongside a dense concentration of Rolls Royces and Bentleys. Children graduated from the town’s lone private school, where my son is a rising kindergartener, are generally packed off to boarding school as soon as they reach an age suggesting that their mothers might be too middle aged to look good in yoga pants.

How does such a place greet epic catastrophe? The done thing is to act like nothing is really wrong, often resorting to the finer points of law and privilege to make sure that those human conventions supersede nature’s inconveniences. Declaring beach prohibitions, for example, is one thing, but enforcing them is something else, even with nosey neighbours phoning in violations. Those of us with private beaches had a brief moment of panic in late March, when we were told that the prohibition could be enforced on our aquatic preserves, but the matter was quickly dropped. Publix pleasantly placed a vast reserve of Veuve Clicquot on sale at its entrance and rectified an alarming shortage of Grey Poupon. Curbside pickup adapted easily to spaces previously reserved for valet parking service, even if receiving one French restaurant’s escargots in a Styrofoam container reached the limit.

Reopening has been generous, while nevertheless remaining a delicate balance. Golf courses and boat launches were among the first facilities to return to life. The town’s public beaches reopened on May 26, eight days later than the surrounding county’s, but then only in a bizarre compromise that allows athletic activity (walking, swimming, etc.) while prohibiting lounging or sunbathing. Reports indicate that town lifeguards are enforcing these rules, often being met with utter incomprehension by people who are told that they may walk, but not sit, on the beach. Following state law, restaurants and shops are back to 50 percent capacity, subject to distancing guidelines and other measures. Since a fair amount of the seasonal population stayed rather than return to their desolate northern homes, dinner reservations are now de rigueur. Hotels are receiving guests, but porter service is only available upon request. Valet parking, though masked and gloved, is ubiquitous again. Conversation has shifted from disbelief to proud declarations of idleness, but the most common thread is what a bore it has all been. By next season, we will be talking about something else.

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