COVID-19

Southold police officer’s retirement party — in violation of governor’s orders — a ‘punch in the gut’ for young friends who made sacrifices

It started out as a cell phone photo a woman sent to a friend, who in turn shared it with her daughter. Like a lot of photos these days that provoke an emotional response from someone, it found its way into text threads Friday evening and eventually onto social media.

“Must be nice to be a Southold Cop and break social distancing guidelines for your retirement party,” read a tweet from 22-year-old Sam Basel of Southold.

Mr. Basel, a journalism major at Fordham University who would have walked across the stage to collect his diploma at graduation this month if not for COVID-19, said the photo really struck a nerve with him. In it you see a large party tent alongside a smaller one, a farm field with a handful of vehicles and people — dozens of them, packed in tight.

Mr. Basel and friends began scouring social media and finding other posts about the event, a retirement party for veteran Southold police sergeant Steven Zuhoski. The friends learned that earlier in the day the Southold Police Department held a walkout for Sgt. Zuhoski, a traditional ceremony at the conclusion of a police officer’s final shift. Then they found more photos on Facebook and Instagram — also viewed by The Suffolk Times — from the retirement party at Sgt. Zuhoski’s tree farm on Oregon Road in Cutchogue. More than 50 guests could be seen, some posing cheek to cheek or embracing and almost none of them wearing masks, in clear violation of an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to cover your face and maintain social distance.

A video sent to The Suffolk Times by a reader showed at least 50 additional vehicles lining the perimeter of the farm. Bagpipers played the party, which included a fireworks show.

“Most people are trying to abide by social distancing guidelines as best they can,” Mr. Basel said. “Then you have people involved with the police department breaking the rules.”

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said the department received no complaints about the party, which he said he was unaware of Saturday morning. He later sent the following statement.

“Our department celebrated three retirements yesterday afternoon with a traditional walkout ceremony at our headquarters,” the chief wrote in an email. “I don’t have any direct knowledge of what occurred at other celebrations after ours.”

Sgt. Zuhoski did not respond to messages seeking comment Saturday.

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he was unaware of the party early Friday evening, but later heard from constituents.

“I had inquiries about fireworks and a possible party,” he said Saturday. “I didn’t know about it until it was nearly over. From my perspective, my deep gratitude for someone who went to work every day despite the risk of exposure to COVID-19 doesn’t waiver.”

Nearly 40,000 Suffolk County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since March. The virus has claimed the lives of almost 1,900 of them.

Liz Dumblis, 22, of Mattituck was visiting New Paltz, where she attended the state university, when she stumbled upon photos of the retirement party that she said have since been taken off Facebook. She was surprised to see no comments calling anyone out for breaking the state guidelines.

“It was kind of a punch in the gut,” she said of the photographs.

Ms. Dumblis has suffered two great losses during quarantine. The cancellation of graduation paled in comparison to the death of her father, John, who after several years of poor health died of a heart attack March 30. He was 69.

Her mom, a retired Army Colonel, told her no more than 10 people were allowed to attend the funeral, which was held at Saint John Roman Catholic Cemetery in Queens, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. They couldn’t in good conscience — or under state guidelines — invite relatives in from out of town under those conditions. The family instead mourned alone.

“It was just my mom, my brother and me,” Ms. Dumblis said. “Three people in a viewing room was very hard. We were all going through the grieving process and didn’t have other shoulders to lean on.”

When she saw the photos Friday and later heard from friends who were also upset about the event, she turned to social media and expressed the pain of not being able to properly mourn her father while others continue with celebrations as if the public health crisis is over.

“It was not my intention to make anybody feel bad [in return],” she said in an interview Saturday. “But maybe [telling my story] is a wake-up call for the people involved to say, ‘Oh shoot, maybe we shouldn’t have done that when other people are dealing with COVID first hand.”

Daisy Rymer of Southold, 21, had been spending all of her time at home since driving back from Tulane University in New Orleans earlier this spring. Her family was keeping a strict quarantine, even making sure not to visit her grandmother, who lives nearby. But after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a new executive order earlier this month allowing gatherings of up to 10 people — so long as they wear masks and maintain a distance of six feet — she could finally see her friends. They’ve been getting together in small groups ever since, always sure to keep their faces covered.

Knowing how much restraint it’s taken to keep up with the guidelines, Ms. Rymer was offended when she found out about the retirement party.

“[Police] are supposed to keep us safe, to set an example for us,” she said. “We’re supposed to trust them. It set us off.”

Mr. Basel said it was frustrating having to sacrifice his graduation. It was something he had looked forward to for a long time. A police retirement, he said, is also a “great thing to celebrate,” but he questioned if it needed to happen now.

“You’re retired for the rest of your life,” he said. “There are plenty of ways to celebrate … The party could have been a couple weeks or a couple of months from now.”