COVID-19 Update – Columbia & Greene Reopening Wednesday, Rental Assistance Coming to Ulster

This is a roundup of coronavirus news and announcements from New York State and Hudson Valley and Catskills counties co-produced with The River Newsroom. The following is for Wednesday, May 20.

NEW YORK STATE

352,845 cases confirmed (1,474 new)
1,467,739 tests performed (28,182 new)
22,843 deaths (114 new)
76,168 hospitalizations (overall)
5,818 hospitalizations (current)
1,836 ICU admissions
New York State coronavirus page
New York State official pressroom
Hotline: (888) 364-3065

The Capital Region, which includes Columbia and Greene counties, will begin to reopen tomorrow after the region met all seven criteria for entering Phase One of the state’s reopening plan. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday that the region’s reopening team was training more than 400 contact tracers who will begin work Wednesday, ticking the last box to enter Phase One. This leaves only three regions under full closure orders: The Mid-Hudson Region, New York City, and Long Island.

New York State legislators are coming back—at least in the Senate, whose members plan to reconvene next Tuesday or Wednesday, City & State reports. They’re hammering out plans for COVID-19-related legislation, and might be joined soon by their colleagues in the Assembly. The government watchdog group Common Cause wants state legislators to give up half their salaries for the year, the Utica Observer-Dispatch reports, since they haven’t passed a bill since April 3. “Why should New Yorkers pay lawmakers $110,000—in the middle of a budget deficit—to do only half their jobs?” Common Cause executive director Susan Lerner asked. The Senate and Assembly passed legislation in March that allows them to meet and vote remotely, but so far, they haven’t used it.

New York State’s Democratic presidential primary on June 23, reinstated by a federal judge after it was canceled by the state Board of Elections, is definitely going to happen. The state appealed the judge’s order to hold the election, but on Tuesday, New York dropped its appeal after a panel of three appeals court judges sided with the lower court.

Announced by New York State on Tuesday:

  • Nassau County is now eligible to resume elective surgeries and ambulatory care. Statewide, 50 of New York’s 62 counties have now been cleared to resume elective surgeries.
  • The state is partnering with the Greater New York Hospital Association and the Healthcare Association of New York State to run a two-week pilot program allowing more visitation for patients in hospitals. The program will run in 16 hospitals. Visitors will be required to wear PPE, and will be subject to symptom and temperature checks as well as time limits on visitation.
  • Memorial Day ceremonies of 10 or fewer will be allowed. Cuomo said on Tuesday that he is leaving the decision on whether to hold ceremonies up to local governments, as long as they comply with the 10-person cap on attendance. “We want to honor our veterans and we want to make sure that no matter what happens we are still honoring our veterans,” Cuomo said. “We hope that those ceremonies are broadcast, televised in their areas so people can be a part of honoring that tradition.”
  • In Tuesday’s briefing, Cuomo called on the FDA to ensure that any pharmaceutical company that develops an effective COVID-19 vaccine releases the rights to it, so the vaccine can be distributed worldwide. “It can’t be a situation where only the rich, only the privileged, can get the vaccine because one company owns the rights and they can’t produce enough for everyone,” he said.

LOWER HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Rockland, Westchester, Putnam

Trump’s decision to take a daily dose of hydroxychloroquine was influenced in part by a letter from “a respected doctor” in Westchester County, the president said Monday, but attempts by the New York Daily News to learn more were rebuffed by a White House spokesman, who declined to name the doctor or provide a copy of the letter. Trump said he was taking the antimalarial drug while attacking Dr. Rick Bright, a federal Department of Health and Human Services whistleblower who says the White House pressured his agency to make hydroxychloroquine widely available. Bright told CBS News’s Norah O’Donnell that limited data the agency had on the drug “told us that it could be dangerous. It could have negative side effects. And it could even lead to death.” The FDA gave emergency approval for hydroxychloroquine’s use on certain hospitalized COVID-19 patients on March 28, though the agency stated upon the approval it did not know if the drug would help. A month later, after Trump had repeatedly touted the drug, the FDA released a warning about the drug’s use outside of hospitals, saying it was aware of reports of COVID-19 patients developing “serious heart rhythm problems” after taking hydroxychloroquine. The National Institutes of Health began a study this week on the drug’s effectiveness in treating COVID-19 when combined with an antibiotic.

No deaths were reported from COVID-19 in Rockland County Tuesday, for the first time since March 21. Rockland has had 611 COVID-19-related deaths so far, according to county figues, or one out of every 533 residents.

Yorktown’s full- and half-day summer camps will be canceled due to the coronavirus, the town’s recreation director announced Monday. Many municipal camps in the region have been closed, but private camps are beginning to open without state guidance, leading to furor from residents and local officials.

Westchester county executive George Latimer announced that one of two runways at Westchester County Airport will open Thursday, according to the Examiner News.

Still grounded: High school basketball stars. The Westchester County Parks Department canceled the 2020 Slam Dunk Tournament, an annual three-day showcase in which the region’s best high school basketball teams compete. The tournament is typically held in late December; this is the first time it has been canceled since its inception in 2000.

Rockland County executive Ed Day, Director of the Veterans Service Agency Susan Branam, and Director of Facilities Management Bob Gruffi said that county-owned veterans cemeteries will be open throughout Memorial Day weekend to allow for visitation.

MID-HUDSON VALLEY

County coronavirus pages: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia

A member of the state’s COVID-19 taskforce told the Poughkeepsie Journal it would not alter the metrics for reopening, despite the protestations of Dutchess County executive Marc Molinaro. A region must have either a two-week decline in hospital deaths or fewer than five deaths per day across a three-day average, and Molinaro has argued, like Capital Region leaders, that a single small spike could set back the region for two weeks. Originally, once a region surpassed an average of five hospital deaths a day, they could only reopen using the two-week decline metric. After Capital Region officials advocated for it, the state allowed regions to meet the metric if they averaged less than five deaths a day even if the region had previously gone above that number. The Mid-Hudson Region is currently averaging eight hospital deaths per day, a number which has been falling for four days, according to the state.

Columbia County will partially furlough its most of its workforce and is requesting volunteers for full furloughs in an attempt to fill a pandemic-sized hole in its budget. Under the plan, county employees will be furloughed for one day out of every two-week pay period from June 6 until December, which is expected to save the county $1.5 million. County employees have until Friday to volunteer to be furloughed for June and July; they will continue to receive health insurance benefits and could file for extended unemployment benefits. The county predicts it will lose between $15 million and $20 million in sales tax revenue. Like other counties, Columbia will also most likely see its state aid cut and its property tax revenues drop as rent and taxes go unpaid.

Some renters will get a break in Ulster County after the county was approved to reallocate $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to provide rental assistance, according to a press release from the County Executive’s Office. Up to $3,000 in rental assistance will be available to renters earning less than 80 percent of the median area income who have lost income due to COVID-19 and the economic shutdown. Details about how to apply are forthcoming, according to county executive Pat Ryan. Residents of all municipalities in the county can apply, except those in Kingston, which is part of a separate CDBG area.

Mohonk Preserve in Ulster County will begin reopening Wednesday. The West Trapps, East Trapps Connector, Spring Farm, and Upper Duck Pond trailheads will be open daily at 7am to members and to the general public at 9am. The Coxing trailhead remains closed. The nonprofit preserve closed two months ago due to the pandemic.

Congressman Antonio Delgado will join Hudson mayor Kamal Johnson for a virtual town hall Wednesday at 3:30pm. The two officials will discuss direct federal funding to communities, the stimulus, and other efforts to help small communities. The town hall can be accessed through the City of Hudson website.

Ulster Publishing, aka Hudson Valley One, will resume publishing June 3, according to a message on its website. The four weekly newspapers—the New Paltz Times, Woodstock Times, Kingston Times, and Saugerties Times—will all now be under one masthead, according to former editor Dan Barton.

A series of pandemic stories will be featured in a new storytelling project by the Hudson Valley group the TMI Project. “Alone Together” will feature stories about “hope, resilience, loss, loneliness, and the silver linings discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The event is Wednesday from 7pm until 8:30pm. Register on the TMI Project website.

While it may feel like the whole world’s gone mad, some locals are finding solace in their own backyards with a pair of binoculars. If you haven’t tried birding, now might be a good time, the Highlands Current writes. “There’s something comforting and soothing about realizing that while our whole world has gone crazy and surreal, the birds are still doing what they’ve done for millions of years,” Connie Mayer-Bakall, president of the Putnam Highlands Audubon Society, told the paper. The Highlands and Catskills, both rich in protected habitat, are especially good places for spotting a rare bird, or maybe a common one you’ve never noticed before.

CATSKILLS

County coronavirus pages: Sullivan, Delaware, Greene, Schoharie

Crystal Run Healthcare told the state Department of Labor last week that it would lay off or furlough some 400 employees; on Tuesday, the Sullivan County Democrat reported that 41 employees in Crystal Run’s Rock Hill branch and one in the Liberty branch will be affected.

SUNY Sullivan’s Board of Trustees formed a committee to explore layoffs at the college as the board tried to prepare for an expected cut to its state aid. SUNY Sullivan President Jay Quaintance said a cut of 25 percent or more would necessitate layoffs. Cuomo has said a 20 percent cut of state aid to schools is possible, though Quaintance said the college’s state aid might be cut up to fifty percent.

Thirty-three inmates at the Sullivan County jail tested positive for COVID-19 after its population of 77 was tested last week. Sheriff Mike Schiff told the Sullivan County Democrat only a few of the prisoners are symptomatic, and their cases are mild. The jail will divert any incoming inmates to other prisons.

Greene County has four COVID-19 testing clinics coming up, made possible after the county received 1,000 test kits from the state. Clinics will be held at Coxsackie-Athens Central School on May 28, Cairo-Durham Elementary School on June 4, Greeneville Elementary School on June 11, and the Windham Wastewater Treatment Plant on June 18. All clinics run from 3pm-6pm; those experiencing symptoms or essential workers should call (518) 719-3600 for an appointment.

Bassett Healthcare, a major provider in Delaware and Schoharie counties, is getting a new president and chief executive officer this summer. The Daily Star reports that Dr. Tommy Ibrahim, formerly executive vice president of Integris Health System in Oklahoma, will take over the hospital company’s leadership in July.

For the second day in a row and the fourth day in the past week, Delaware County Public Health reported no new COVID-19-positive test results. The county currently has just three persons hospitalized and 11 in mandatory quarantine for the coronavirus.

COMING INTO FOCUS

The nation has had somewhat of a love affair with Governor Cuomo, whose Queens-inflected voice has emerged as a leading one in the national conversation on COVID-19. Over the past few months, Cuomo has earned a reputation for straight talk on data and authoritative action on pandemic response. But as larger and more investigative newsrooms have been digging into the state’s early response, it’s becoming clearer that New York has made some tragic mistakes.

Last week, ProPublica published a lengthy investigation comparing the responses in New York and California during the pandemic’s earliest days, when the full extent of the outbreak was unclear and every hour counted. The story paints a unflattering picture of New York State government: late to order a shutdown, slow to get up to speed on its own already drafted pandemic plans, unresponsive to pleas for information from local officials and reporters, and deflecting blame rather than owning up to key early mistakes.

ProPublica asked CUNY epidemiologist Denis Nash to factcheck Cuomo’s assertion that New York acted faster than any other state in moving from the discovery of the outbreak to a statewide shutdown. Nash replied that the per capita death rate was 10 times higher in New York than it was in California by the time each state ordered a shutdown of all but the most essential activity. “There is no question that California timed its response better,” Nash said.

The recent story in ProPublica joins a few other deep dives that tell similar stories about New York’s early missteps: “How Delays and Unheeded Warnings Impeded New York’s Virus Fight,” a New York Times investigation on April 8; and “Seattle’s Leaders Let Scientists Take The Lead. New York’s Did Not,” an April 26 feature in The New Yorker.

Cuomo has done a lot of things well—including being straightforward about delivering bad news and uncertainty—and none of this absolves the federal government of mounting a weak and chaotic response to a situation in which it was expected to show leadership. But New York’s early missteps, along with its failure to keep infections from exploding in nursing homes and prisons, might serve as a lesson for how to respond better if another, larger wave of infections breaks—or if another dangerous virus makes the leap from a wild animal to humans, a prospect many scientists think is increasing in risk as humans further encroach on wild habitats.

OF INTEREST?

The River and The Other Hudson Valley are collaborating with WGXC to announce these updates over the air. To listen, tune in to 90.7 FM at midnight, 5am, 7am, or 9am, or visit the audio archive online.

La Voz, una revista de cultura y noticias del Valle de Hudson en español, está traduciendo estos resúmenes y co-publicandolos en su página web. Leyendo aqui. También puede escuchar actualizaciones diarias por audio en el show “La Voz con Mariel Fiori” en Radio Kingston.

SOURCES FOR ACTIVE CASES

Rockland: county data dashboard

Westchester: county briefing

Putnam: county press release

Orange: county data dashboard

Dutchess: county data dashboard

Ulster: county data dashboard

Columbia: county coronavirus page

Greene: county coronavirus page

Sullivan: county coronavirus page

Delaware: county press release

Schoharie: county press release

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the time of Congressman Antonio Delgado and Hudson Mayor Kamal Johnson’s Town Hall. It is at 3:30 pm Wednesday, not 3 pm.

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