Week XXV: As curve is flattened, New Yorkers still wary of reopenings, COVID-19 rebound

County Executive Daniel McCoy

County Executive Daniel McCoy

ALBANY COUNTY — On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s 26th straight day of a COVID-19 infection rate below 1 percent.

In Albany County, the testing numbers also remain good, with 10 new cases reported on Wednesday.

In its 25th week of battling the pandemic, Albany County suffered two more deaths: a man in his forties died on Wednesday and a woman in her eighties died on Saturday. Both had underlying health conditions.

This brings Albany County’s COVID-19 death toll to 133.

As the curve remains flat, more venues are opening. On Wednesday, the New York State Council on the Arts announced that cultural venues in all of the state’s 10 regions are ready to safely welcome patrons.

Throughout the week, though, concerns were raised about local and state finances and also about schools and colleges reopening.

And a Siena College Research Institute poll released on Wednesday found that more than half of New Yorkers, 51 percent, say the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is yet to come, and 86 percent are concerned that New York will face a large outbreak in the fall.

Furthermore, despite venues being open, large majorities of New Yorkers are not comfortable with five of six indoor activities.

Fifty-eight percent are not comfortable with dining indoors in a restaurant, 72 percent with having a drink at a bar, 70 percent with working out at a gym, 73 percent with watching a movie at a theater, and 65 percent with going to a bowling alley. New Yorkers are more comfortable with visiting a museum with 45 percent saying they are comfortable and 47 percent saying that they are not.

Following  New York Forward reopening plan, all of the arts venues will operate at 25 percent capacity, with visitors required to wear masks and practice social distancing. Venues reopening locally include the Albany Center Gallery, the Albany Institute of History & Art and the Hyde Collection.

Commenting on the five months of closure, Mara Manus, executive director of the council, said, in making the announcement, “After showing great resiliency and immense ingenuity since shutting their doors and moving programming online, it’s thrilling to see many of New York’s arts and culture organizations begin to safely reopen and welcome back patrons.”

Also this week, Cuomo on Tuesday announced new state guidance for agritourism businesses as autumn approaches. The businesses — which include corn mazes, pick-your-own fruit and vegetable operations, hayrides, and haunted houses — are considered low-risk outdoor arts and entertainment and are permitted to operate under New York’s NY Forward guidance.

Face coverings and social distancing are required for each of those businesses and there is to be reduced capacity for all but hayrides; for hayrides, frequently-touched surfaces must be cleaned between rides.

New Yorkers can also visit the state’s farmers’ markets and craft beverage trails, which have remained open under state guidance.

 

Finances

On Monday, Cuomo and labor leaders sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation, saying, “Even if state and local governments cut expenses, increase taxes, and reduced services, the revenue shortfall would still be in the billions of dollars.

“Moreover, forcing state and local governments to take such actions would only further the pain and extend the period of time for the nation's economy to recover. Virtually all economists agree that forcing state and local governments to lay off employees and reduce services will negatively impact the national recovery.”

Cuomo for months has been saying that New York State requires $30 billion during the current fiscal year and next to avoid massive disruption.

On Tuesday, the directors of the New York Conference of Mayors, Peter Baynes, and of the New York State Association of Counties, Stephen Acquario, put out a joint statement on the need to address budget shortfalls.

“During these unprecedented times of crisis, combating COVID-19 has tested our local governments and their workforces beyond compare, but they have stepped up and answered the call,” the statement said. “However, without aid from Washington and facing 20-percent cuts from the state, local governments must be given the additional tools necessary to address their budget shortfalls.”

Baynes and Acquario noted that New York City has asked to borrow funds and went on, “We need Albany to approve this — as well as additional requests made by local leaders for budgetary flexibility, program reforms and home rule actions — if we are going to continue to depend on our municipalities to navigate this unprecedented public health and economic crisis.”   

In May, the Democratic Senate had passed a fifth federal stimulus package with trillions of dollars for state and local government aid; the Republican Senate’s package did not include such aid and no compromise has been reached.

President Donald Trump then circumvented the legislative process, issuing executive orders, which pose legal concerns and did not address aid for state and local governments.

On Wednesday evening, Cuomo released a transcript of his comments reacting to news reports that Trump has ordered his administration to attempt to defund New York City among other cities.

New York City; Washington, D.C.; Seattle; and Portland are initial targets as Trump makes “law and order” a centerpiece of his re-election campaign after months of unrest and violence following the May killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the New York Post reported on Wednesday evening.

“My Administration will not allow Federal tax dollars to fund cities that allow themselves to deteriorate into lawless zones,” Trump said in a memo, quoted by the Post.

Cuomo responded, “As far as this statement he’s going to stop funding for New York City — he’s not a king. He thinks he’s a king but he’s not. He’s a president. But there’s the Constitution and there are laws, nothing that he knows anything about. But the federal budget is appropriated by law with conditions of funding by law.”

 

New state initiatives

Cuomo made several announcements Tuesday to stem the spread of COVID-19. One is the launch of New York’s absentee ballot portal. An executive order allows any voter concerned about exposure to the coronavirus to request an absentee ballot.

Cuomo also issued an executive order requiring county boards of elections to inform voters of upcoming deadlines, to be prepared for upcoming elections, and to help ensure absentee ballots can be used in all elections.

These initiatives follow the  election reforms Cuomo signed into law last month.

Cuomo also announced on Tuesday that Alaska and Montana meet the metrics to qualify for New York’s travel advisory and have been added to the list of states and territories from which people arriving in New York have to quarantine for 14 days.

The quarantine applies to any person arriving from an area with a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents over a seven-day rolling average or an area with a 10 percent or higher positivity rate over a seven-day rolling average. 

The new list now includes: Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Guam, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Virgin Islands, and Wisconsin.

 

Schools

“We are getting a lot of questions from teachers and parents about the start of school,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy on Thursday morning.

Cuomo gave schools across the state permission to open, requiring plans from each district outlining its methods of remote instruction, in-school classes, and a hybrid plan of the two methods.

On Monday, New York State United Teachers, joined by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, called for the state to make mask-wearing mandatory at all times indoors during the school day, except for appropriate break periods and in cases of medical accommodation.

Some districts, such as Guilderland, already require that as part of their plan. Other districts’ plans don’t require masks in classrooms, where desks are spaced out, but only in situations such as passing between classes in hallways.

Cuomo said on Thursday that, while he had announced earlier which high school sports teams could play locally and which high-contact sports could hold practices but not yet compete, that, within those parameters, decisions are left up to individual districts.

Tennis, soccer, field hockey, cross-country running, and swimming can start on Sept. 21. 

Athletes in close-contact sports like football, ice hockey, wrestling, and rugby will be allowed to practice but not play games.

No traveling to games will be allowed outside of a school’s region until Oct. 19.

“That does not mean that high school sports must commence,” said Cuomo. “It means they can commence. Can, not must. It’s up to the individual school districts to determine if they want to go ahead with a sports program. Different school districts are making different decisions, and that’s fine; it’s up to them.”

In Albany County and across the state, colleges and universities are opening. Cuomo said on Thursday that New York State will set a threshold for COVID-19 cases after which colleges will have to go solely to remote learning for two weeks.

“We have colleges that are reopening,” said Cuomo. “We’re seeing around the country situations where colleges reopen and then have an outbreak of cases. We’re going to set a threshold that says, if a college has 100 cases or a number of cases equal to 5 percent of their population or more — whichever is less — they must go to remote learning for two weeks at which time we will reassess the situation.”

The Siena poll showed that two-thirds of New Yorkers want colleges to deliver remote education.

“I believe colleges are the canary in the coal mine,” Cuomo said on Monday in a conference call with the press.

Miners would carry caged birds into the tunnels so that, if a bird died of toxic gases, the miners would be warned to leave before they, too, succumbed.

Cuomo went on, “Either the college administration is rigorous and disciplined in their administration of the precautions, or the viral transmission rate goes up and then the college has to close and go to remote learning.”

Cuomo said that he believes that what is happening with colleges reopening will be replicated when public schools open shortly.

The Siena poll showed that 62 percent of New Yorkers say that completely opening schools runs too great a risk while 32 percent disagree.

“It is inevitable that, when you bring a concentration of people together, the viral transmission is going to go up,” Cuomo said on Monday. “The question will become, like on colleges, how well did that administration actually enforce compliance and what was their parameter for number of students infected before the school takes quarantine measures, goes to remote learning, etc.?”

Cuomo said that local and state governments could become involved with an outbreak of COVID-19 at a school. “A local government could close a school district, or the state could close a school district, but school districts would be well-advised to look at what’s happening in colleges,” he said.

Jim Malatras, the new chancellor of the state university system, spoke to the press on a conference call with the governor on Sunday. He reported that there had been over 100 positive tests for COVID-19 at SUNY Oneonta, which is about 3 percent of the total student and faculty population. Hence, he said, the Central New York campus is being closed for two weeks.

“We will assess the situation working with the state and local health departments after two weeks,” said Malatras. He said the two-week closure is needed “to show folks that this can spread quickly and we have to address it quickly.”

Malatras also said, “We understand people want to party. But individual responsibility plays into the collective good, so your individual actions have enormous consequences on everyone else in your college community.”

He noted that five Oneonta students had been suspended for holding parties against the college policy. Three campus organizations were also suspended, he said.

“We had to suspend 43 students at SUNY Plattsburgh for similar things because we have to address this during the new-normal,” said Malatras. Plattsburgh is in Clinton County in the North Country.

Cuomo noted on Sunday, “There are already 25 colleges across the country that are having significant issues, over 250 cases …. If you don’t enforce the precautions, then the virus spreads and then you have to take more dramatic action which is more disruptive and generates a more energy, a more negative energy.”

Besides the benefits of in-person learning, part of the reason colleges have opened is economic pressure. Public school systems are under economic pressure as well since many parents depend on them in order to go to work.

Cuomo said on Monday’s conference call, “I want as much economic activity as quickly as possible. We also want to make sure the transmission rate stays under control. That is the tension.”

He was talking about the pressure to fully open restaurants and casinos, but the same tension applies to opening schools.

On Sunday, Cuomo urged public schools, “Err on the side of caution. If you go to in-person education and you are not prepared or you can’t actually implement the plan and do it on day one, you will see the numbers go up and then you’ll see more disruption …. Everybody is anxious to get back to school. I get it. But everybody should be anxious to get back to a safe school, right?”

 

Twindemic

Another concern with schools reopening is, as Howard Zucker, the state’s health commissioner, put it during Sunday’s conference call, that flu season is just around the coroner. 

Zucker said the health department would put out regulations on Monday saying that all deaths involving respiratory illnesses need to be tested for COVID-19 and for the flu.

“This will maintain the integrity of our data,” he said. “It will remove any reporting of presumed cases.”

Zucker urged everyone to get a flu shot.

Similarly, Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen this week stressed the importance of county residents getting flu shots. She noted that the flu season typically starts in October and peaks in February and said that it takes two weeks to develop antibodies after getting a vaccination to be protected.

Whalen said of the vaccination being developed, which may or not be the same as this fall’s most prominent flu strain, “Even if it’s not a perfect match, it means the disease you get is less severe.”

She also said, “We’ve been told to anticipate a second surge of COVID.” Whalen said it may be difficult for clinicians to differentiate between the flu and COVID-19 since symptoms are similar.

On Wednesday, McCoy and the county’s Department for Aging Commissioner Deb Riitano launched a “Shoo the Flu” campaign, handing out “flu prevention bags” to seniors who drive through the parking lot at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany. 

Each free bag includes CDC guidelines for stopping the spread of COVID-19 and a list of locations to get flu shots along with a thermometer, hand sanitizer, a face mask, a pill case, a bottle of water and a can of chicken soup.

 

Newest numbers

As of Wednesday morning, Albany County has 2,541 confirmed cases of coronavirus disease 2019, with 10 new cases since Tuesday. Of the new cases, two had close contact with people who were infected with the disease, one reported out-of-state travel, two are healthcare workers or residents of congregate settings, and five did not have a clear source of infection detected at this time.

The number of Albany County residents under quarantine has ticked up to 414 from 409. The five-day average for new daily positives remains unchanged at 8.4.

Albany County now has 50 active cases, up from 46 a day ago. So far, 9,798 county residents have completed quarantine. Of those who completed quarantine, 2,491 of them had tested positive and recovered.

Thirteen county residents are hospitalized, one more than on Tuesday, and two patients remain in intensive-care units. The county’s hospitalization rate is now 0.51 percent, up from 0.47 percent on Tuesday.

More Regional News

  • “Data show that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected some populations and placed them at higher risk, including those who are medically underserved, racial and ethnic minority groups, and people living in rural communities,” says the CDC, which awarded the state’s health department $34 million to address inequities.

  • The state’s new rules, for indoors, “strongly encourage” but do not require masks for students or campers and staff who are not fully vaccinated. Outdoors, masks are not required although students, campers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated are “encouraged” to wear a mask in certain higher-risk circumstances. Both indoors and outdoors, students, campers, and staff who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks. Finally, schools and camps may choose to implement stricter standards.

  • “A lot of these folks out this way do not want to go down into the city to get services so here we’re bringing services to them and I think this is just going to grow and grow,” said Sheriff Craig Apple of the new program to have social workers and trained EMS crews answer some emergency calls in rural Albany County.

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