Give people six feet of space and the benefit of the doubt

The political skirmish last Friday made clear, once again, the need to rely on science — and to have patience with each other — when dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

Governor Andrew Cuomo delayed by half a day the opening of Phase 2 businesses in five regions of the state that had met the metrics. He turned to internationally recognized experts for a review of the metrics.

Our region, the Capital Region, wasn’t immediately affected because it was a few days behind the first five regions in beginning Phase 1 in the state’s four-phased approach.

The plan, as originally described by Governor Andrew Cuomo, was to have two weeks between each of the four phases to be sure the openings hadn’t caused a resurgence of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and also to make sure there are adequate hospital beds available should a surge occur.

We’re not saying the governor is perfect; he’s made some mistakes along the way in dealing with an unprecedented crisis. Adding to the confusion on Friday was the last-minute posting on the state’s website of the latest guidelines and recommendations for Phase 2.

We also understand how eager businesses are to open. A co-owner of Avanti Hair Studios in Guilderland expressed it perfectly when she said the big question has been: “When? When? When? For all these weeks.” Some of her hair stylists are struggling, she said, and many of their clients are eager to return.

We are all eager to return to life as we knew it. And we are all in uncharted territory.

Yes, of course it would have been better if Cuomo had given adequate warning about a review of the metrics before moving to Phase 2. But we advise patience and cohesion rather than inflaming divisiveness in a society fraught with fear where some people are struggling to meet basic needs.

Albany County Minority Leader Frank Mauriello, a Republican from Colonie, put out a statement on Friday scolding the governor, typical of the reaction by those politicizing the decision.

“We can’t sit on the sidelines and watch as our friends and families lose their jobs and businesses. The Capital Region is set to reopen on Wednesday and it’s critical we do so,” Mauriello said, calling for power to be restored “to the people of New York, not ‘international experts.’”

Such divisiveness helps no one. Until a reliable vaccine is developed and widely available, there will be risk in reopening. We need to minimize that risk. Opening recklessly — as the Rensselaer County executive has urged — besides being illegal could result in more deaths and a second shutdown that is even worse for the economy.

Cuomo gave fair warning at his press briefing on Saturday, as the Capital Region gears up to start Phase 2 on June 3, that the metrics will be reviewed by global experts before the opening of further businesses is allowed.

 “Next week coming up the Capitol Region and Western New York will end their 14 days,” he said. “And then we will have to make a decision whether or not they enter Phase 2. We make that decision by reviewing the data, and the numbers, and not just the state officials because nobody has dealt with this pandemic before.”

The governor also said, “I’m not a public health official; I'm not a doctor. Know what you don’t know. I go to global experts and this is a matter of life and death and I want to make sure I get the best advice for the people of this state. I’m not going to put anybody’s life at risk unless I feel confident that we have had the best advice.”

It is good for a government leader to know his limits and to rely on experts when making life-and-death decisions.

Scientists themselves are learning about the coronavirus as the pandemic unfolds around the globe.

We count ourselves fortunate to live in Albany County where the county executive and the county health commissioner have given daily press briefing, for more than 80 days, releasing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, the number of people in quarantine, the number of people hospitalized and in intensive-care units, and the number of people who have died from the disease.

We’ve listened to and written about every one of those briefings. We believe the best way to control this virus is to have an informed public.

Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen heads a department that, since March 12, when the first COVID-19 cases were announced, has tracked each case and had those in contact with the infected person quarantined.

Whalen has been calm and informative throughout, honestly noting when original assumptions have changed.

At first, following the federal guidance at the time, for example, Whalen advised residents to save masks, which were in short supply, for the health-care workers and first responders who needed them. Later, she explained why the thinking on this had changed and gave specific instructions on how to don and doff a mask.

By giving residents the unvarnished facts — with data readily available on a county dashboard — Whalen and County Executive Daniel McCoy have made citizens aware of what they need to do to stay safe and protect others.

We believe that is what Cuomo has done on a statewide level in his daily briefings. The state has a dashboard with county-by-county figures available and last week launched a COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard that lets residents in any of the state’s 10 regions know where they stand.

Such information empowers residents. It lets each of us understand the things we need to do for our own good and the good of all. Because we live in a democracy, we are not subject to a government shutdown; rather we must willfully embrace the measures that will keep us safe.

We like the tact taken by the county sheriff’s office and by the Guilderland and Altamont police: They are educating violators — and handing out masks — rather than arresting offenders and fining them.

We also applaud the way Albany County has looked out for those in need. The sheriff opened an unused wing of the jail to shelter the homeless and offer programs to get their lives back on track.

The county’s Mental Health Department started a helpline so that residents who were isolated or fearful had somewhere to turn for help. The county, working with the Whitney M. Young Jr. Health Center, set up walk-in mobile testing sites for at-risk neighborhoods. Meals to homebound seniors have been delivered by the county’s Department for Aging.

We also appreciate the messages repeated daily, or more, by McCoy and Whalen: Wash your hands, stay six feet from others, wear a mask if you can’t do that. It’s a litany that has engendered habits to protect us.

Finally, we appreciate the messages McCoy readily repeats: “I’m not going to point fingers” and “We’re in this together” and “Be part of the solution.” 

When tensions rise over the inevitable miscommunications of navigating uncharted territory and McCoy is asked to comment, he does not rant or rail; he does not blame or blast.

As he said at Friday’s briefing, when asked about a misunderstanding on who could receive free antibody testing: “They’re trying to do their best … I’m not going to sit here and point fingers because at the end of the day we’re in this together … My constituents don’t want finger-pointing. They want results and us working together … We’re only human. We make mistakes … Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

We should all exercise such forbearance.

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