Health commissioner offers assurances on reopening as gov says recalcitrant districts have till Friday to file

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“It’s been tough,” said Healthy Café Catering owner Betsy Manware of keeping her Albany business viable during the pandemic. Her business, which depends on catering work gatherings, is down 60 percent so she’s turned to small graduation parties and backyard weddings, keeping under the 50-person crowd requirement.The federal Payment Protection Program is “keeping us afloat” she said, allowing her to keep her three to five employees working since reopening in June.

ALBANY COUNTY — On Monday, as the governor reiterated the requirements for schools to reopen, Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen sought to assure parents about the safety of returning their children to in-person learning locally.

In light of reports on problems with COVID-19 outbreaks at schools in other states, Whalen said, “I want to hopefully offer some reassurance.”

She went on, “This is not Georgia.” Videos went viral on social media recently of a high school in Paulding County, Georgia, showing students in crowded hallways, not wearing masks. After a cluster of COVID-19 cases, the school switched to remote learning for a few days.

“Our percent positivity is much lower,” said Whalen.

Statewide, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that the percent of positive tests reported from the day before was 0.88 percent. For the Capital Region, which includes Albany County, the percentage was 0.8 percent.

Whalen said that education about and compliance with protocols like wearing masks, washing hands, and staying six feet from others was higher in New York State than elsewhere.

She also called “really laudable” the plans that educators have worked so hard on to reopen schools. “While we cannot say this is a completely risk-free environment, we’re in a pretty good place,” said Whalen. “We’re probably in the best place possible.”

Over the summer, she said, when there were cases of COVID-19 in schools, the schools were proactive in responding. The same process, Whalen said, will be used when schools reopen in the fall: The health department identifies contacts, the contacts are immediately excluded and recommended for testing.

“We test the contacts and then broaden the net if necessary ...,” Whalen said. “We’ve worked very closely with the state and are prepared to work very closely with the school districts going forward.”

School districts across New York were required to submit plans by July 31 for reopening. Of the state’s 749 districts, 107 have not submitted plans, the governor said on Monday, releasing a list of those districts. If those districts have not submitted plans by Friday, Aug. 14, they will not be able to provide in-person learning this year, Cuomo said.

Later on Monday, a statement from senior advisor Rich Azzopardi was released by the governor’s office, stating, “The list of districts that didn’t file a plan with the state Department of Health is accurate. Despite clear guidance provided to these schools, which included a link to the DOH portal, some districts in follow-up calls said they filed with the State Education Department — which is not an executive agency — but didn’t file with DOH.” The State Education Department answers to the Board of Regents.

Azzopardi’s statement went on, “Others filled out an affirmation certifying that they would be abiding by the state’s reopening guidance, but didn’t actually submit their plan, something many of these districts are now rectifying.”

The Enterprise has written detailed accounts of the plans created by the Guilderland, Voorheesville, and Berne-Knox-Westerlo school districts.

Cuomo had announced on Friday, Aug. 7, that schools could open in all 10 regions — each met the metric he set of the COVID-19 infection rate being at 5 percent or less on a 14-day rolling average.

On Monday, he reiterated the new requirements he had outlined on Friday. Concerned about equity, Cuomo said districts have to post their remote-learning plans on their websites.

Schools also have to post a COVID-19 “testing plan” for their district so teachers and students know how testing will be done. Similarly, the schools must post their plan for contract-tracing, which will be conducted after students test positive for coronavirus disease 2019.

Finally, Cuomo said that school districts must have three discussions with parents by Aug. 21 for most districts while the “big five school districts” must hold five sessions by then. The sessions can be online.

By the same date, Aug. 21, districts must each have a separate session to discuss reopening plans with their teachers.

“The main arbiter here of whether a school district has an intelligent plan to reopen and whether people have confidence in that district’s plan: It’s going to be the parents and it’s going to be the teachers, and that requires discussion, and that’s going to be a dialogue,” Cuomo said on Monday during a conference call with the press.

“You're not going to dictate to parents that they have to send their children. They don’t have to send their child. The parents are responsible for the health and safety of the child, and they’re not going to send the child if they don’t believe the plan makes sense.”

He also said, “A teacher is not going to come back into the classroom if they think the classroom is not safe, and that’s right. The school district has to have that dialogue.”


Federal funding

On Monday, Cuomo held a joint press conference with Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, to continue his push for federal funding for states. When the pandemic began, Cuomo said, the lack of funding was “a blue-state problem” as the states hardest hit were largely Democratic.

“That’s no longer true. It’s now a blue and red problem, Texas, Florida, etcetera. States have expended a lot of money to deal with COVID,” Cuomo said.

He said New York State needs $30 billion over the next two years. He said, too, “There will be no economic recovery without assistance to the state governments.”

Cuomo also questioned the legality and the practicality of President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders, awarding federal funds without Congressional approval.

“His executive order actually would increase the cost on states,” said Cuomo. With unemployment insurance at $400 per person, and the state having to pay a quarter of that, it would cost New York $4 billion by December, said Cuomo, adding, “That’s handing the drowning man an anchor.”

Cuomo also said, “My advice to the president is: When you are in a hole, stop digging.”

Beshear said, “The current form where states would be expected to do a 25-percent match is something virtually no state can afford or if they break down the current version can afford for very long.”

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said at his press briefing on Monday that he had spent the weekend lobbying for a federal stimulus package that would include funds for state and local governments.

If that is not forthcoming, McCoy said, “Tough decisions are going to be made … Government’s going to look different.”

Without a federal bailout, said McCoy, “The governor’s going to push a lot down to the counties.”

He anticipates seeing longer lines locally at food pantries. And, while McCoy said he was grateful both the governor and president had extended the moratorium on evictions for those affected by the coronavirus, he also said that meant tax money wouldn’t be coming in from the landlords.

McCoy said he didn’t want to scare people. “It’s my job to make you feel secure,” he said.

He said he hoped Republicans were just playing a political game and would “bail us out” before the November elections.


New numbers

As of Monday morning, Albany county has 2,359 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of 10 since Sunday — one is healthcare worker or resident of a congregate setting, five have close contacts to positive cases, one reported traveling out of state, and three did not have a clear source of transmission.

The number of county residents under quarantine has dropped from 486 on Sunday to 450 on Monday.

The five-day average for new daily positives increased slightly to 7.4 from 7.8. There are currently 36 active cases, up from 32.

So far, 8,061 Albany County residents have completed quarantine. Of those who completed quarantine, 2,323 of them had tested positive and recovered, an increase of six.

There are still five county residents hospitalized with COVID-19 with two in intensive-care units. The hospitalization rate remains at 0.21 percent.

The county’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 128.

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