As state task force makes arrests downstate for COVID violations, Albany County continues to educate

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“You will not be fined, prosecuted, or have any law-enforcement activity for a diagnosis of COVID,” said Whalen. “You will not put your friends, your family, or others at risk of any type of legal action if you inform us of your contacts,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen.

ALBANY COUNTY — As COVID-19 cases continue to mount in Albany County, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Friday that, in three days, a state task force conducted over 1,000 compliance checks at bars and restaurants to be sure they were following regulations meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

He again called for aggressive enforcement from local law enforcement.

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said he doesn’t see aggressive enforcement locally “happening right at this point in time.”

Throughout the pandemic shutdown and phased reopening in Albany County, the county sheriff’s office has taken the approach of educating rather than arresting people.

“We’re trying to change the way society has been ...,” said McCoy at his press briefing on Friday. “These restaurants are really, really trying.”

He said the last thing he wanted to do is fine businesses that are struggling to stay open. The approach might be different, McCoy said, if people were “blatantly disobeying” executive orders.

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen drew a sharp line on Friday between “people flying in the face of what is recommended” — for example business owners flagrantly disregarding executive orders who might then face arrest — and what her department does. 

“What we do at the health department in terms of contact tracing and case investigation has no legal ties whatsoever,” said Whalen.

She went on, “We protect your private information.” The health department shares no information with law enforcement, she said. For instance, the recent spate of COVID-19 cases linked to a Fourth of July weekend party on Hudson Avenue in Albany, will not lead to anyone being prosecuted, she said.

Whalen stressed that this distinction is essential for people to understand as the health department gathers information to stem the spread of the disease.

“You will not be fined, prosecuted, or have any law-enforcement activity for a diagnosis of COVID,” said Whalen. “You will not put your friends, your family, or others at risk of any type of legal action if you inform us of your contacts.

“This is good public health and the last thing we want to do is have any discussion around enforcement and hamper our public-health response.”


Task force

The state task force, led by the chairman of a State Liquor Authority and a State Police lieutenant, found violations at 84 establishments between July 21 and 23, Cuomo said. Violators face fines up to $10,000 per violation while egregious violations can result in the immediate suspension of a bar or restaurant’s liquor license.

From those three days of investigation, the State Liquor Authority suspended licenses at 10 establishments — all in New York City or on Long Island.

“We are very proud of what New Yorkers did to flatten the curve of the virus, but we have to protect our progress because no one wants to do that again,” Cuomo said in releasing the list of the businesses with suspended licenses.

He went on, “That’s why we’re watching the bar and restaurant violations and the congregations in front of these establishments, as we believe it’s connected to the increased infection rate with young people. We’ve tasked the State Liquor Authority and the State Police to help local governments more aggressively enforce the law and they are doing just that, with dozens of violations found last night alone.”

Since the start of the pandemic rules, the liquor authority has brought 443 charges against licensees statewide and imposed 33 suspensions.

The recent 10 included, for example, the Secrets Gentlemen’s Club in Deer Park, Suffolk County, where, the release from the governor’s office said, “The detail observed employees and patrons inside the premises without facial coverings, including dancers performing while sharing the same stage pole and giving lap dances” in violation of executive orders.

When the owner was confronted by an investigator, “He claimed it must have started without his knowledge after he had left — unaware that he had already been caught on videotape buying drinks for the undercover agents and bragging about getting away with violating the executive orders.”

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