Picturesque Rhinebeck Braces Itself Against COVID-19 | Rhinebeck | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
click to enlarge The Picturesque Rhinebeck Braces Itself Against COVID-19
Photo by Abby Foster

"My wife came down with COVID-19, it's horrible," says Village of Rhinebeck Mayor Gary Bassett, who tested negative. "She was in and out of the hospital three times. After seven weeks, she's finally recovering. We're really thankful."

One of the Hudson Valley's most picture-perfect small towns, Rhinebeck brings to mind quaintness, not quarantines. Its charming, walkable, tree-lined, architecturally historic streets are renowned for their manicured cleanliness—not the type of environment one might have expected, at the beginning of this ordeal, to have been affected by the virus. But as we've seen all too well, COVID-19 cares not for culture or geography when it comes to the places it impacts. Dutchess County, which includes the town of Rhinebeck and the identically named village at its heart, was hit early and hard by the pandemic, reporting some of the first cases in the region. At the same time, though, Rhinebeck's being home to the state-of-the-art Northern Dutchess Hospital has literally made the town a lifesaver for many who've been afflicted with the illness. And on another level Rhinebeck's deeply ingrained sense of community has made it exceptionally equipped to react well to the crisis. The roots of this cooperative sensibility stretch back to the town's establishment in 1686, when the local Esopus and Sepasco tribes traded 2,200 acres of charter land to Dutch settlers.

A Special Spot

"Rhinebeck is the most unique place along the entire Route 9 corridor," Bassett maintains. "Nowhere else in this area do you really have the kind of shopping district we have here, with the intersection of Mill Street and East and West Market streets, Montgomery Row, and the variety of shops and restaurants, all within such a small area. And the businesses are really good about cooperating, which is really helping us get through this now. I meet twice a week with county officials, who are in turn meeting with the state to plot the phased reopening of various regions. We formed a task force to reach out to people in the community to find out what they need, and we set up food pantries."

click to enlarge The Picturesque Rhinebeck Braces Itself Against COVID-19
Photo by Abby Foster
With warmer weather, Rhinebeckers are takingto the streets, masks at the ready.

The idea of food pantries in a town known for its many fine restaurants may be disconcertingly surreal. But the need is real, and the fact that the municipality is meeting the COVID challenge so straight on is certainly a welcome sign. Rhinebeck's easy accessibility to New York City has long helped make it a popular magnet for tourism. That industry has, of course, been adversely impacted by the pandemic, and local inns are doing their best to adapt to the guidelines established by Governor Cuomo's PAUSE executive order. Both the historic Beekman Arms (est. 1766) and the newly constructed Mirbeau resort have ramped up their cleaning operations and put in place PAUSE-compliant protocols (the latter has closed its lavish on-site spa, pending guidance from local authorities).

Rhinebeck's close proximity to Manhattan contributes to its being the bedroom community of several prominent entertainment and media figures who are currently working from their weekend homes in the town. During the quarantine, "Today Show" anchor Savannah Guthrie has been hosting portions of the broadcast from her Rhinebeck residence while "What Do We Need to Talk About," the latest in townie and Tony-winning playwright and screenwriter Richard Nelson's ("Chess," Hyde Park on the Hudson) cycle of plays about the fictitious local Apple family, was recently staged online using Zoom. Screen-star couple Jeffrey Dean Morgan ("The Walking Dead") and Hilarie Burton Morgan ("One Tree Hill") are finding fast success with their new AMC streaming show "Friday Night in with the Morgans," which they host remotely from their Rhinebeck farm. The program features celebrity guests and always highlights a member of the community (a recent episode included Jass Liu, the owner of local sushi restaurant Osaka). Burton Morgan is also the author of the best-selling The Rural Diaries, signed copies of which are available (with free shipping) from village staple Oblong Books & Music.

Businesses Bonding

One snapshot of a Rhinebeck business aiding a neighbor can be seen in Gigi Trattoria owner Laura Pensiero's offering a leg up to an employee from the currently closed menswear shop Changes, which is right next door to her popular Mill Street eatery. "He's a friend and has been helping us out; I also rehired one of my old bartenders, who'd just moved back up because the place she was living in down south was destroyed by a tornado," says Pensiero, who, in this, her restaurant's 19th year in business, has been forced to lay off most of her staff. She's been working 14-hour days to offer daily curbside pickup service for phone and online lunch and dinner orders to customers. "It's been really challenging, our catering and our private event room service for the year have been cancelled," says Pensiero. "But I'm still crunching stats and planning for fully reopening, trying to stay optimistic and keep the engine warm. I just hired new kitchen staff, and there's a young energy with them that I'm excited about. Things aren't done and over."

click to enlarge The Picturesque Rhinebeck Braces Itself Against COVID-19
Photo by Abby Foster

Working directly with Pensiero's bistro is Grand Cru Beer & Cheese Market, which is owned and operated by husband and wife Rod Johnson and Alicia Lenhart: The bottle and tap room/cheesemonger is now offering its growlers to go at Gigi as well as at its own location, outside the village on Route 308. "We set up an online store, and we post our daily tap menu on our website and Facebook and Instagram pages," says Lenhart, whose business opened in 2010. Grand Cru has been presenting live music for the last 10 years and had 20 acts lined up for the spring and summer, all of whom had to be cancelled. But with the warmer weather coming, the operation plans to utilize its expanded outdoor beer garden, which is large enough to space tables six feet apart and accommodate food trucks and a stage among its fire pits and other amenities.

Hummingbird Jewelers, opened in 1978, is one of the oldest businesses in Rhinebeck. Normally, this would be one of Hummingbird's busiest times of the year, with its East Market Street location aflutter with customers looking for graduation or wedding gifts. Since their closure on March 16, they have been doing concierge shopping using images and phone conversations to help clients find the perfect gift. Hummingbird has offered curbside pickup or shipping through US mail. They hope to open by June 15, with new protocols to protect their customers and staff. In-store shopping will be by appointment only, and jewelry for repair will be received and returned at curbside. They are working hard to convert their website to an e-commerce platform for online shopping.

click to enlarge The Picturesque Rhinebeck Braces Itself Against COVID-19
Photo by Abby Foster
Who would argue against a pizzeria as an essential business? Al Mazzella, owner of Rhinebeck Village Pizza.

Hummingbird was one of 42 businesses that took part in a recent webinar hosted by Rhinebeck Responds that offered legal advice to merchants about dealing with landlords during the closures. "That was really uplifting," says Grand Cru's Lenhart, another webinar participant, about the experience. "To hear everyone connecting and helping each other."

Last year, part-time Rhinebeck resident and affordable housing developer Michael Clark cofounded philanthropic organization The Change Reaction with the aim of fomenting direct social assistance at the hyperlocal level and inspiring others to mount similar efforts elsewhere. Clark and his business partner Greg Perlman, who launched the like-minded group All Ways Up in 2010, recently teamed up with the Hebrew Free Loan Society to create a small business relief fund that will make zero-percent-interest loans of up to $200,000 available to Rhinebeck-based small business owners and independent contractors affected by the economic shutdown. The effort’s associated loan payments will go back into a pool for future local loans, giving the borrowers a way to pay it forward for those next in need. “There are a lot of well-to-do people in this area, and many of them want to help less-fortunate people in their community without going through an intermediary,” says Clark, who also donated $25,000 to the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley to seed a new fund established by Rhinebeck Responds to provide grants of up to $5,000 to those in need. “The idea [of The Change Reaction loan program] is to help bridge the wealth divide while showing how ‘normal’ citizens can be leaders in their own communities.”

Healing Arts

The Center for the Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, a bastion of local theater since 1998, is also finding its mark during the pandemic. The theater suspended its spring schedule on March 15, three days after Cuomo's announcement of the CDC-recommended lockdown. As the barn-like facility awaits reopening, it's offering livestreamed shows each week (new originals on Wednesdays, "Livingroom Shakespeare" Zoom readings on Saturdays, and a Friday cabaret on YouTube; donations are encouraged), as well as online classes in dance and theatrical techniques. "We're so blessed to have a community that supports us," says Kevin Archimbault, the center's artistic director. "We look forward to seeing everybody's faces again soon." Although those faces will likely be masked, the reunion may be soon, indeed. According to Archimbault, the theater is hoping to erect an outdoor stage for socially distant performances of "A Chorus Line," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and other plays on its five-acre property. "People will be able to bring a blanket, a bottle of wine, and a picnic basket," he says. "And it's such a beautiful spot."

Another beautiful local spot is the lush, 190-acre campus of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, an internationally renowned, non-profit educational retreat founded in 1977. With the grounds now closed, Omega has postponed its on-premises programming until 2021 and pivoted to exponentially increase its inspirational, thought-provoking, and healing courses and seminars online. "Obviously, being online isn't the same [as in-person gatherings]," says Omega CEO Robert "Skip" Backus. "But for the short term we're focused on accelerating our online content to bring our regular high-quality, blended learning to people in this way. There's a lot of anxiety among people right now, but we will find balance through all of this."

At least one native business has even been, in a way, growing the town's community during the closedown. "Through Instagram, I've been getting students from all around the world—Kuwait, Egypt, Australia, Iceland, the Isle of Man," says Rhinebeck Pilates owner and instructor Elaine Ewing, who started teaching classes online the week of the edict. "A lot of these students say they'd never have access to Pilates classes otherwise." Opened in 2003, Ewing's studio has in the past attracted numerous in-person international visitors, who come to workout using its collection of rare equipment built by Dr. Joseph Pilates himself just after World War II.

What Recovery Looks Like

No doubt many residents have been happy to learn that Mayor Bassett, in one of several efforts designed to counter the economic downturn, is proposing they'll be able to pay taxes in two installments this year, instead of the usual single June installment. "We've also suspended the signage laws, so that businesses can put out sidewalk signs, and we've put parking restrictions on hold, to make curbside pickups easier for people," says Bassett. "Now we're at the point where we're asking ourselves, 'What does recovery look like?' and trying to work with that vision."

That vision, a combination of online actions and sagely implemented real-life projects, has been coming more sharply into focus. Last month, the signature weekly Rhinebeck Farmers' Market reopened—with social distancing and other safety guidelines in effect and for now without its regular live music—and the chamber of commerce held a successful virtual sidewalk sale with participation from two dozen businesses. Plans to close off portions of the streets to allow appropriately spaced al fresco seating for all of the town's restaurants—in effect converting the village center into one big outdoor cafe—are also being discussed, says Bassett.

Like other schools have, those in Rhinebeck's Central School District have switched entirely to remote learning during the pandemic. And, also like other high schools, Rhinebeck High School is grappling with how to proceed with its 2020 commencement ceremony, slated for June 27. "The rest of the faculty and I feel so bad for our graduating students this year, even though they know the situation isn't our fault," says its principal, Edwin Davenport. "The assistant principal and I have been meeting with the senior class advisor and senior class officers to go over options while we wait to find out how the authorities want to proceed. The students agree that the least appealing option would be a virtual ceremony, so we've been talking about some kind of a drive-in ceremony with a parade through town, with decorated vehicles and people watching from their porches. Another idea would be postponing it until a date in July or August, depending on where things are at then."

The sprawling Dutchess County Fairgrounds, which this spring has seen the cancellation of such popular events as the Camping World RV Super Show, the Rhinebeck Antique Car Show and Swap Meet, and the Rhinebeck Crafts Festival (as of this writing, the Hudson Valley Hot-Air Balloon Festival is still set for July 10-12, the Dutchess County Fair is on for August 25-30, and other events are still on the web calendar), lie just east of the village center. At present the fairgrounds are the site of one of three food pantries organized by the town to support those in need, and it's there, on Saturdays, that you'll find the mayor himself, helping out.

"We're seeing history happening, right now," Bassett says. "Later on, we'll look back and say, 'Did we do things right or not?'"

Rhinebeck Business Supporters

The following Rhinebeck businesses advertised in the June issue of Chronogram and helped support this content:

Aba's Falafel

54 E Market Street

(845) 876-2324

We let our food speak for itself. Made with organic chickpeas. We source local when possible, and keep our food simple, fresh and healthy. Spicy condiments are available for those with a hot palate. Our falafel is available year round at our Rhinebeck location, and at local farmer's markets, during the summer.

Architecture + Construction, PLLC / A+C

(212) 845-9611

A+C is a NYC and Hudson Valley New York based architecture firm founded by Joshua Pulver in 2005. We pursue work of varied size, type and aesthetic. Clarity in communication, precision and creativity are constants through our process of managing and exceeding client expectations.

BIA Rhinebeck

22 Garden Street

(845) 516-4044

Bia (bee-ya) is Irish Gaelic for food, sustenance and alimentation.A Hudson Valley interpretation of modern Irish cuisine.

Grand Cru Beer & Cheese

1094 NY-308

Gourmet shop & tasting bar with an extensive craft beer selection, plus cheese & charcuterie boards

Hummingbird Jewelers

23A E Market Street

(845) 876-4585

Hummingbird Jewelers, celebrating over 41 years in business, represents over 75 Designers and Jewelers from around the world.

Maya Kaimal

6384 Mill Street Second Floor

(845) 876-8200

Maya Kaimal is an award-winning cookbook author and founder of Maya Kaimal Foods. Maya Kaimal transforms the vibrancy of traditional Indian flavors into modern culinary experiences.

Oblong Books and Music

6422 Montgomery Street

(845) 876-0500

Oblong Books & Music began as Oblong Books & Records in Millerton, NY in October 1975. In 2001, we opened a second location in Rhinebeck. We are proud to have the largest independent book and music stores in the Hudson Valley.

Primrose Hill School

23 Spring Brook Park Suite 2

(845) 876-1226

Located on 7.5 acres in the Village of Rhinebeck, Primrose Hill School educates the whole child—the head, the heart, and the hands—in order to cultivate each child’s unique capacities, create a deep connection to the natural world, and ultimately provide a strong foundation for contributing creatively, cooperatively and compassionately to a rapidly changing world.

Refinery Fitness

6795 U.S. 9

(845) 835-1700

We are a boutique fitness studio focusing on the use of kettle bells and other 3 dimensional movement tools to bring high quality, community driven fitness in a safe, refined and un-intimidating environment.

Upstate Films

6415 Montgomery Street

(845) 876-2515

A non-profit member supported arts organization. Presenting the best in world & independent cinema since 1972

Williams Lumber & Home Center

6760 U.S. 9

(845) 876-7011

Since 1946, Williams has been meeting the needs of the community in the Hudson Valley and Catskill regions for hardware, lumber, building materials, millwork, masonry and more. The Williams family and staff are committed to providing unsurpassed excellence in service, quality & price, seven days a week, at their seven locations throughout the Hudson Valley.


Here you'll find unique merchandise with my art on mugs, water bottles, drinkware, kitchenware, serveware, greeting cards, totes, shoulder bags, post cards, stationery, pillows, home furnishings, stickers, luggage tags, personal accessories, tee shirts, sweatshirts, and more!

Peter Aaron

Peter Aaron is the arts editor for Chronogram.
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