The calm before the storm?

Masked up at the Village Green. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

This is the new normal? Or was this past Memorial Day weekend a temporary pandemic-related pause in the flood of seasonal outmigration of city folks to exurban destinations?

Uptown Kingston was quiet on Saturday morning except for the farmers’ market in the John Street parking lot next to the county courthouse and the half-block-long socially distanced queue waiting patiently for their bagels outside Kingston Bread and Bar on North Front Street. Many of the plastic-covered meters on the streets hosted unoccupied parking spaces.

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In Woodstock one could find street parking right opposite the village green, an unheard-of possibility on Memorial Day weekends of yore. A few people wandered about. The second homers preferred lunch in their second homes to being out in the hamlet.

Main Street in New Paltz was similarly quiet. There were a handful of bicyclists and more walkers on the Wallkill Flats.

It’s too soon to know how the pandemic that has particularly ravaged the New York metropolitan area will affect the economic relationship between America’s biggest city and its immediate Upstate neighbors. When things settle down, will there be more home-buying from downstaters seeking refuge?

Restrictions on business services are expected to continue to apply to the lower Hudson Valley for at least two weeks after Phase One of the regional economic reopening was announced by the governor.

“Brokers cannot show houses, home inspectors cannot inspect homes,” pointed out Kingston real-estate expert Jon Hoyt. Marketplace changes will be delayed. “Some buyers have dropped out because of the pandemic’s economic impacts,” cautioned Hoyt, “while there is speculation that some metropolitan area residents may want a refuge offering greater social distancing.”

After a torrid fourth quarter last year, Ulster County Multiple Listing data showed a slowdown of price appreciation in January and February of this year, with 240 sales this year versus 201 in the first months of 2019, but practically no increase is median sales price. March showed a turnaround of the turnaround, with 127 sales at a median sold price of $264,500 in 2020 versus $225,350 in March 2019. As the pandemic spread in April, sales prices didn’t waver. Though the number of sales decreased from 130 in April 2019 to 114 in April 2020, the median Ulster County residential sales price increased from $219,000 last April to an extremely robust $269,650 last month.

The effect of the novel coronavirus appears to be profound, all right. According to an April Harris Poll survey cited by Bloomberg News, nearly a third of Americans are thinking of moving to less densely populated areas. That’s despite the fact that average wages of urban workers are more than 40 percent higher than those in other places.

Wasn’t it just last year that it was announced that for the first time in human history there were more people living in cities tan in rural areas? “Fleeing the city?” asks the Bloomberg piece by Lionel Laurent, and then provides its prediction. “You’ll be back.”

Will you be back? “All I want to do is drive my uninfected family and my groceries (without getting out of the car) to a place where we can run around, breathe easier, and ride out the storm,” writes Amy Klein, one anguished New Yorker who’s getting paid to express her anguish in a magazine article for Insider. She’s sorry she doesn’t have the means to leave New York City the way many wealthier people have been able to, she says.

Right now, these folks are scared to be anywhere. Whether in Times Square or on the village green in Woodstock, they’re wearing masks, observing the rules of social distancing, and glaring at people who don’t.

On March 16 The New York Times published a fascinating story about the 81,000 mail-forwarding requests in April from New Yorkers. Many of those who were leaving were from New York’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and 60 percent of the destinations were outside New York City. The destinations were grouped by metropolitan areas. A little more than half the requests for address changes from the US Postal Service for the top 20 metros were in destinations within the greater New York consolidated metropolitan area, which extends eastward to include all of Long Island, westward to Newark and Jersey City, and northward to include Poughkeepsie, Newburgh and Middletown.

In fourth place on the top-20, with 1456 requests, was the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk metro area in Connecticut. In eighth place was Ulster County with 962 requests. Torrington, Connecticut had 644 to finish tenth, Columbia County twelfth with 545, and the Albany metro thirteenth with 527.

Those are significant numbers because of their magnitude. Almost 1000 ex-city people asked the USPS to forward their mail to Ulster County.  Five percent of New York City people who wanted to reroute their mail to the top destinations gave forwarding addresses in Ulster and Columbia counties or the Albany metro. Though these folks weren’t gathering in public spaces to celebrate Memorial Day, they were probably around somewhere.

Finally, here’s a post-holiday-weekend Tuesday update on the spread of the coronavirus in Ulster County.  County health authorities report 27 new cases and one new death in the past three days, bringing the number of positive findings to 1683 and the number of fatalities to 73. Those daily numbers are far lower than the worst-case scenario prepared for in April. With the increased testing for the virus, it’s now clear that the county is on an accelerating downward slope in terms of the ratio of persons infected but not recovered to total population. That’s why the region is beginning the first phase of its plan for economic recovery today.

Since town-by-town data on the number of cases has been available, we have been tracking the incidence of the pandemic among three subsets of the Ulster County population roughly equal to each other in population: the southern townships oriented toward Orange and Dutchess counties, the Kingston corridor from Esopus north to Saugerties, and the rest of the county, consisting primarily of smaller municipalities with significant second-home populations.

There is no evidence that people from New York City have been coming upstate for recreational purposes and have been infecting the local population. Controlling for population, the municipalities in the second-home subset have been consistently recording an infection rate of about half of the rest of Ulster County.

It’s been a quiet beginning to the summer season this year, with little evidence of the activity that has characterized local holiday weekends in the past. But that doesn’t mean the economic connections between America’s arguably most important city and its exurban neighbors has weakened.

There is one comment

  1. Maya Horowitz

    What wasn’t mentioned in this article are the driving habits which many of those fleeing the city bring here with them.

    They bring these habits up here every summer & they were were in back in evidence again on our Woodstock streets during April & May.

    The speeding, the tailgaiting, the road rage, the unlawful left turns when the local driver in front of them isn’t turning into traffic as haphazardly as they’re accustomed to. (I know they’re not local b/c I read their license plate frames).

    There’s also the laying on of horn and/or nasty comments which ensue when you follow the rules of the road they abandoned after getting their license, despite having read the rules as part of the process. (Consistent spot to observe this – the speed limit change 1/2 way past the Golf Course on 375.)

    The police have been sparse on the roads during the age of covid, which I totally understand, but have hope there will be a return to traffic ticketing when we clear a couple more Phases of Reopening.

    I always dread the return of the NYC drivers during the summer season. Now that they need to move here for a more serious reason, I wonder what will it take for them to drop their NYC driving habits & truly become a conscientious member of the community they aspire towards.

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