Every table was taken at Café Boulud, the house restaurant of the Brazilian Court Hotel, where Palm Beachers celebrated Father's Day over foie gras hamburgers. Palm Beach is normally deserted by June, but this summer the island town hums with activity. Will it last? Has Palm Beach evolved into a year-round destination, complete with a viable summer season? Or will most of the estimated 30,000 New Yorkers who flocked here and to other South Florida cities during the pandemic head back north—not just to escape Florida's summer heat, humidity, and hurricanes, but for good?
As America's first planned resort community, Palm Beach until now has been a winterplace. Back in the days of Henry M. Flagler, the town's founding father, its season was brief, extending from New Year's to George Washington's birthday. As air conditioning and fumigation techniques made South Florida more livable, that six-week season extended from Christmas to Easter, before, in more recent times, gradually annexing Thanksgiving and the month before Memorial Day.
Last year, as the pandemic raged and northern destinations were a hot mess of disease, lockdowns, and racial violence, many seasonal visitors simply stayed put. Some joined the town's approximately 9,000 permanent residents to become true Floridians, with all the income-tax and standard-of-living advantages thereunto. The prospect of "going north"—once a felicitous phrase that evoked the joys of the Hamptons, Newport, or Nantucket—has acquired a grim tone of resigned inevitability among many of those contemplating New York City's surging crime rate, the Hamptons' perpetual traffic jams and bribes for reservations at hot restaurants, and other inconveniences.
The health terror of 2020 seems to have tipped the scale, but signs were already evident that Palm Beach was becoming a year-round summer community. Raphael Clemente, executive director of metropolitan West Palm Beach's Downtown Development Authority, reports that, over the last decade or so, Palm Beach County has become "less and less seasonal... the summer dip was shallower and shallower year over year." "Nothing is slowing down right now," he says. "All things point to a very active summertime."
The change has surprised David McClymont, CEO of the Palm Beach Symphony, which is rapidly becoming one of the country's finest regional orchestras. "The season has dramatically transformed from what it was just 10 years ago," he wrote in an email. "I am amazed that it is hard to get a reservation at some of the area's top restaurants during the previously sleepy summer months." Veronica Arrieta, manager of international public relations at The Palm Beaches Florida, an agency that promotes the local travel and tourism economy, reports that she is "confident that the rise in consumer confidence and pent-up demand will extend our season into the summer months."
"The way things are going, it seems like the season is still here!" writes Elisabeth Munder of Luxury Ink, a Palm Beach-based public relations firm. She sees that lunch tables are fully booked at Swifty's, a storied New York restaurant that closed in Manhattan but lives on here in the town's iconic and lavishly restored Colony Hotel.
Post-pandemic life has fueled a wholehearted embrace of year-round Palm Beach. According to Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO of the Business Development Council of Palm Beach County, some 91 financial firms have rented sizeable office space here in recent months. Last year, Ken Griffin's Citadel Securities took over the island's Four Seasons resort for use as a trading floor. Goldman Sachs is primed to relocate some of its asset-management unit—a $9 billion business—to Palm Beach County. These moves are prompting the arrival not just of retirement-age senior staff but mid-level employees with families eager to put down roots. "These newly relocating executives are 40ish with children," Smallridge writes. "I strongly believe that this new wave of executives will eventually 'settle' and may not go north for the entire summer but instead part of the summer."
Predictably, the island's real estate market has ballooned, with single-family homes nearly doubling in value. By the spring of 2021, sales reached a point that inventory was virtually depleted on the island. At Palm Beach Day Academy, the island's only private school, applications in 2020 soared by 105 percent over 2019, with some 60 percent of the increase coming from the New York metro area. The school's range of summer activities has expanded, offering art, academics, and athletic camps all summer long. In another sign of permanence, from September 2020 to March 2021 alone, 33,565 people traded in their New York drivers' licenses for Florida ones—a 32 percent increase from the same period the year before. More than 14,000 did so in Palm Beach County—where, Clemente reports, economic growth is outpacing even that of bustling Miami.
The arts scene is also thriving. "Palm Beach will have a summer season!" declares Ghislain d'Humières, director and CEO of the Norton Museum of Art, where he recently arrived following the institution's $100 million expansion. "We've been thrilled to see the growing Palm Beach County population, and in tandem its growing arts season, and are thrilled to host programs and exhibitions in our galleries, our garden, and the Palm Beach community that offer engagement with the arts, family fun, and opportunities for reflection all year round." This summer, the Norton is offering films and concerts on its capacious lawn, "as well as yoga classes, community tours of the city, and much more."
Camilla Webster, a Palm Beach-based artist, shares d'Humières's enthusiasm. "I have three studio visits a day with major collectors who are enjoying an extended season in Palm Beach," she says. "We are enjoying a unique storm of activity while having a rather magical June-July socially." In the span of a week in mid-June, Webster sold three paintings, two of which were installed in still-inhabited buyers' residences. David McClymont reports that the Palm Beach Symphony gave its final concert of the season and a major fundraising dinner in May, which was "unheard of in the past and both of which were wildly successful at absolute capacity." Already planning to open its next season in early November—a novelty in a place where music is traditionally not performed until January—the symphony this summer is holding social events, recording sessions, and educational programs for the expanding, culture-craving community.
As the long summer days roll by, some part-time residents are still decamping for points north. But they are leaving later and returning earlier than ever before. It's a mixed blessing for native Palm Beachers, unaccustomed to fighting for parking spaces, table reservations, and a place in the festival sunshine.
Paul du Quenoy is a private investor and critic. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University. Judith Miller is a City Journal contributing editor and the author of The Story: A Reporter's Journey.