New York State update

The first topic of my (hopefully brief) updates is the state of affairs in New York, where I live near Binghamton.

Governor Cuomo is resigning effective August 24th in the wake of an investigative report from the attorney general about allegations of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment. While the governor still contends that he did nothing criminal, he has decided to resign rather than face impeachment by the State Assembly and a trial in the State Senate.

Cuomo has almost no support from any Democrats in state or national office. He actually hasn’t had their support for months, as I alluded to in this post from March. Now, though, the outcry is even greater, so he decided he could no longer be effective as governor, and thus, resigned, giving two weeks notice, which allows time for Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul to prepare to take over the governorship.

In practical terms, the state is in a better time to transition to a new governor now than it was in March. The budget is in place and, while the delta variant has driven up case numbers in recent weeks, New York is in a much better position than many other states with lower vaccination rates. Lt. Gov. Hochul has been very actively involved in policy against the pandemic, particularly in her home region of western NY, and has long been “on the road” for the administration, visiting all sixty-two counties every year. She has often represented the governor’s office on economic development issues.

She will be the first woman to serve as New York’s governor and is known for her collaborative style of leadership, which will be a stark contrast to Gov. Cuomo. Unfortunately, she is taking over the governorship in the third year of a four-year term, so she will almost immediately face having to gear up a campaign for the Democratic primary next spring.

I wish her well with the New York State motto “Excelsior” which is usually translated as “ever upward.” Despite the challenges of 2021, I look forward to her tenure as governor and to her leadership as we continue to deal with the pandemic.

New York State update

As you may recall, I post occasionally on New York State government and politics, especially as it relates to the pandemic. This has necessarily led to some reference to the investigations into Governor Cuomo. Many New York politicians of both parties have called on the governor to resign, claiming he can’t govern effectively under a cloud of suspicion, while the majority of New York voters say in public opinion polls that he should remain in office while the investigations continue.

Given Governor Cuomo’s high profile nationally, both as a leader on pandemic policy and as the chair of the National Governors Association, there has been national coverage on the allegations and investigations, although this waxes and wanes depending on what else is happening. When there is a lot of coverage of a mass shooting or trial or a major piece of federal legislation, we don’t hear about Governor Cuomo for a few days until things calm down and we are back to the question of how can he govern under these circumstances.

Meanwhile, he has been governing. There have been numerous speaking engagements at vaccination sites, especially those in high-need neighborhoods, in the continuing efforts to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible without leaving any demographic groups behind. This week, there was the announcement of a monument dedicated to essential workers who continued to serve the public while most people were encouraged to stay safe at home. Updates to COVID policies have been rolled out as data and conditions warrant.

Most significantly from the political standpoint, our state budget has passed. Unlike most states, the New York fiscal year starts April first, so the budget was a few days late being passed. While the governor’s office is heavily involved in budget process, the delay was due more to timing of the American Rescue Plan passage in Washington, which established how much federal aid was coming to New York, and to COVID, which complicated the negotiation process which usually happens in person. Unfortunately, the Speaker of the Assembly, our lower house in the legislature, tested positive for COVID during the negotiation process but continued to serve from home.

So, our state government continues to function, which is good as we are facing yet another critical time period with the pandemic. While the overall infection rate is still quite low, cases on average are rising with sizeable presence of the B.1.1.7 variant and another variant that first appeared in New York City. We are giving out the vaccine as quickly as we can get doses. Thirty-five percent of NYers have received at least one vaccine dose, with twenty-two percent fully vaccinated. That still leaves millions of people, especially younger adults, teens, and children vulnerable to infection, so we have to continue to be cautious with masking, distancing, and gathering size and conditions.

The newly passed state budget has money to help with public health efforts, in addition to rent assistance, increase education aid, and small business programs to help everyone in our pandemic recovery. It will take time and effort, but we will build back better, a phrase that Governor Cuomo was using before President Biden and that others in the environmental and social justice movement were using before the governor took it up.

Governor Cuomo, continued

I wrote here about the developing situation with Andrew Cuomo, our governor here in New York State, where I live in Broome County, far from both New York City and Albany, our capital. In the week and half since I wrote, things have become increasingly contentious, both on the reporting of nursing home death issue and the sexual harassment/bullying issue.

The nursing home death reporting issue parameters are largely unchanged. The administration reported deaths where they happened, whether in a hospital, nursing home, or elsewhere, such as a private residence. Some people wanted to know how many of the hospital deaths were people who had come to the hospital from nursing homes; they wanted the term “nursing home deaths” to refer to people who had likely contracted the virus in a nursing home, regardless of where they died. The newest wrinkle in this is that it appears some of the governor’s top aides edited a report over the summer in such a way as to not reveal how many of the hospital deaths were people who had come from nursing homes at a time when the governor was writing a book on his leadership during the pandemic.

In reaction to all this, the legislature has rescinded the broad authority to take executive action that it had granted to the governor last spring. This is their right to do, of course, but I would feel better if they committed to staying in session past June. Getting things through the New York State legislature is often a long, drawn-out affair and there are times with the pandemic when things change quickly and new policies need to be enacted as expeditiously as possible. The governor can continue to extend existing executive orders.

I am grateful that the existing orders can still stand because, by and large, they have worked well in keeping as many New Yorkers safe as practicable. While the initial outbreak in New York was horrible, the policies the governor enacted in conjunction with public health, medical, scientific, and legal experts were adopted by the public and brought the infection rate down well below the national average. Although there have been spikes, for example over the holiday season when many people travelled and gathered in groups against the state and public health recommendations, New York has not suffered the fate of other states that didn’t implement mask mandates, distancing requirements, gathering size restrictions, etc. or that lifted restrictions too quickly. By being thoughtful and incremental in re-opening and by gathering, analyzing, and adjusting in response to data, most New York businesses and schools are open and are expanding hours as our vaccination rates go up and infection rates go down. New York needs to continue on its science- and data-driven path to keep from suffering the spikes we have seen in other states that were less thoughtful in their plans. Governor Cuomo made mistakes during the past year, but he took responsibility for them and changed policies to correct problems. His leadership mattered and I will always be grateful for what he did because he helped as many New Yorkers as he could to survive a devastating year.

I think New Yorkers need to remember that Governor Cuomo is also a regional and national leader. He spearheaded an effort in the Northeast for states to cooperate on policies and on procuring supplies after the prior federal administration decided not to have a national strategy. In 2020, he was vice chair of the National Governors Association; in 2021, he is chair. This gives him even more opportunity to advocate for policies to help everyone in the US in these trying times. In a few days, it is likely that federal aid to state and local governments will finally be enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan, an initiative that Cuomo has been championing since last spring.

I admit that I am somewhat perplexed that people are surprised by Cuomo’s personal behavior. Any casual observer of New York politics or regular viewer of his pandemic press conferences has seen him being combative and displaying his sense of humor, which ranges from dry to caustic. His sense of what is appropriate to say in public is – um, let’s say – less circumspect than one would expect. He seems especially unable to understand younger people’s sensibilities. For example, when his three 20-something-year-old daughters and one of their boyfriends were living with him last year, he said any number of embarrassing things regarding them. I don’t think he really understands current mores on what is appropriate to say or do in work settings, which is why I think his apologies following the young women’s stories of feeling uncomfortable with his behavior are credible. He is as clueless as Joe Biden who faced criticism for touching and whispering in the ears of women while on the campaign trail or George W. Bush who tried to give German Chancellor Angela Merkel a shoulder rub.

I think that the independent investigation that is ongoing is very important to gather evidence on stories of sexual harassment and hostile work environment. If there is evidence of impeachable acts by the governor, then that should take place. Unlike a corporate executive, the governor is elected by voters, not a board of directors, so there is no relevant authority to fire him or force him to resign. While some state legislators have gone on record calling on Gov. Cuomo to resign because these investigations are a distraction, the governor is carrying on with his duties, adjusting the pandemic policies as conditions warrant and getting ready for budget negotiations with the legislature. Unlike most states, New York’s budget is supposed to be passed by April first, so, once the American Rescue Plan is signed into law, there will be a short window in which to finalize and pass the state budget. Although Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul has been involved in the pandemic response, especially in her home region of western New York, it would be much more disruptive to the state budget process to have Gov. Cuomo step down at this time.

While I admire Governor Cuomo’s leadership through the pandemic, I do not admire him as a person. I find him to be arrogant, overbearing, and a boor. Unlike his father, the late Governor Mario Cuomo, who was principled and articulate, Andrew has always been a bare-knuckles brawler and bully as a politician. Despite being a Democrat, during his early years as governor, he governed more like what used to be a moderate Republican. He and then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were willing to inflict the health and environmental consequences of fracking on our area, as long as the watershed for New York City water supplies was kept free of drilling. (The eventual fracking ban in New York was thanks to Dr. Zucker of the Health Department and later passed into law once the Democrats had the majority of both houses of the legislature.) It wasn’t until it was clear that the national electorate was becoming more progressive and the Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature that Governor Cuomo started to govern and talk like a Democrat.

Because past Republican candidates for governor have been unqualified and put forward ideas which I oppose and because I didn’t like or trust Andrew Cuomo, I have been voting for the Green Party candidate for governor, whose platform aligns most closely with my own. Granted, in heavily Democratic New York, it was unlikely that my choice to vote third-party would have any real bearing on the outcome of the elections, but I wanted to make clear here that my admiration of the governor’s handling of the pandemic was not a reflection of my being a fan of him personally. Likewise, my observations of his personality and behavior are not coming from a place of partisanship.

At this point, my main motivation is pragmatism. The next couple of months are critical in the course of the pandemic. As national health experts and the Biden administration are pointing out repeatedly, we need to be cautious in ending pandemic protection measures until we have a much higher level of protection among the general public. Texas and a number of states have, as they did in previous waves, lifted restrictions too soon. Governor Cuomo will continue to follow the science to keep us from having a large spike in cases. He is also setting up vaccine sites among underserved populations, trying to address the health and social inequities that caused people of color and those with low income to be hit hardest by the pandemic. I don’t think the New York State legislature is nimble enough to address these issues and I’m not sure if Cuomo’s prior executive actions would stay in force if Lt. Gov. Hochul were to become governor.

Also, the budget negotiations will be very difficult. In New York, for a number of complicated historical reasons, the budget gets hammered out largely by the governor, the speaker of the Assembly, and the majority leader of the Senate. The budget also includes a lot of non-budgetary legislation; one hot topic in the last several fiscal years has been the legalization of recreational marijuana. I don’t think it would be fair to expect Hochul to be thrown into the midst of that process with the deadline coming up in three weeks.

I have often written about how the stress of our governmental function adds to my personal stressors. After the November election, I had hoped that, by this time, the governmental stress might have eased more than it actually has. With the aftermath of the insurrection and the state of the Republican party on the national level and the upheavals with Governor Cuomo, my hopes were not fully realized.

But, hey, what’s life without stress?

I’ll never know.

Governor Cuomo

During the pandemic, I have listened to dozens and dozens of press briefings with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. I appreciated his updates on COVID, the latest medical findings, and what New York was doing to address the illness and all the other issues that arose from it. I live in upstate New York, so the information he provided was especially relevant to me, but there were many around the United States and even abroad who tuned in.

In recent weeks, there have been legislators and press members who have been critical of the governor and his administration’s handling of the reporting of deaths in relation to nursing homes. The state reported deaths by where they occurred; people who died in hospitals were reported as hospital deaths, even if they had been nursing home residents prior to hospital admission. This was the state’s consistent practice and one which was straightforward and easy to compile from death certificates. All COVID deaths in the state were reported, categorized by place of death.

The problem arose because legislators and the press wanted to know how many nursing home residents later died in hospitals and how many formerly hospitalized patients died in nursing homes. This information is more difficult to compile and the governor’s staff, who worked seven days a week for months on end, did not have time to comb through all the records to assemble a report. Unfortunately, this was perceived as a cover-up of something nefarious and things have gotten totally out of hand with accusations flying everywhere.

I am annoyed at those in the legislature who are upset with the governor over this. When they requested the information they were not in session. Like many states, the New York legislature only convenes part of the year, usually January through June. If the legislature wanted this information, they could have offered to have the legislative staff compile it, rather than expecting the executive staff to add it to their already long list of duties.

There has also been questioning of the state policy to release COVID patients to skilled nursing facilities after hospitalization, especially in spring 2020 when the virus was so widespread in New York. This was based on federal policy. It got patients who had recovered sufficiently out of the hospital, putting them in a more comfortable, less risky environment while freeing up hospital space for more critically ill patients. Although these discharged patients were likely no longer contagious, the nursing homes had to be equipped to place them in isolation. Because I was listening to Governor Cuomo’s press conference every day, I knew that, contrary to some reporting at the time, nursing homes were not “forced” to take patients; they only accepted them if they were equipped to do so. Somehow, this morphed into stories that COVID was introduced into nursing homes by these recovering patients. In truth, COVID entered the nursing homes through staff who were living, shopping, etc. in the local community.

I am not an uninterested bystander in this case. My father lives in a senior facility which has been operating under COVID precautions for almost a year now. Despite that, they have lost at least six residents to COVID and have had more infections from which residents were able to recover. The cases originated from the outside community, not from a resident discharged from the hospital. The staff of the facility is tested at least weekly and screened for symptoms daily, but, as we know, the coronavirus is virulent before symptoms and before it shows up as positive in a test, so staff have unknowingly exposed residents, their families and co-workers.

Somehow, it has become easier to just blame Governor Cuomo. The legislature is threatening to revoke the emergency powers it granted to the governor to handle the pandemic, which is their right to do. However, if they do that, they had better be prepared to remain in session and react quickly to changing circumstances with disease variants, vaccinations, etc. The New York state legislature is not known for being agile – or even functional a great deal of the time – so they had better think carefully before they vote. It’s a lot easier to complain than it is to govern.

There have also been complaints of the governor bullying people and recently of sexual harassment. I am not commenting on those accusations at all as I have no basis to judge their veracity. I did want to address the reports on deaths and nursing homes because those are matters of public record and were clear to me as they were unfolding. Suffering the loss of a loved one is difficult enough without having questions about the circumstances of their death circulated in the press.

September 11

Nineteen years ago today, terrorists, most of whom were from Saudi Arabia, attacked the United States, killing thousands of people and destroying airplanes and buildings in New York City, Arlington, Virginia, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I remember those killed, the many who acted valiantly to try to save lives, often at the cost of their own, those who worked in the aftermath of the disaster, many of whom suffered illness as a result, and the many thousands, both military and civilian, who were impacted by the wars in Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East that sprang from the 9/11 attacks.

Nine years ago, my area was suffering from a record flood of the Susquehanna River, brought on by the remnants of tropical storm Lee. What many people don’t realize is how long it takes to recover from such an event – and that some things aren’t recoverable. It took years to repair homes that could be and tear down those that couldn’t. There are neighborhoods with patches of grassland where homes once stood, interspersed with homes that managed to survive. Those neighborhoods have changed character, with fewer older folks in them as they were the most likely to move to higher ground or leave the area after the flood. Our own home was not flooded, but there was standing water three blocks away and significant basement flooding one block away. We had long carried flood insurance on our house, although it isn’t required by the (still outdated) flood maps; we will continue to do so, hoping that we never have to use it while realizing that the increased strength of weather systems and changes to the upper-level wind patterns brought on by global warming may someday send us another record-breaking flood that will reach our home.

Despite these prior events, September 11, 2020 feels even more fraught. The global pandemic has exacted a terrible toll on the United States. We are over six million cases and closing in on 200,000 fatalities. The economic impact, especially on those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, has been severe, with rising rates of hunger and housing crisis. The pandemic also made more prominent existing problems with the health care system, racism, environmental degradation, education, infrastructure, jobs, wealth, taxation, and social programs. While some of the effects have been buffered by living in New York State, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has been leading an effective response to the crisis, I am appalled by the lack of leadership from the president and the callous intransigence of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which are prolonging and deepening the suffering in the country as a whole. Because the Senate hasn’t passed the HEROES Act which the House passed in May, additional federal assistance to households, state and local governments, the post office, and the election system isn’t available. As a result of the national inaction, states are going to have to lay off front-line personnel and the vote count in November’s elections will take a long time.

To make matters worse, this week has seen new evidence that the president’s failure to address the pandemic was not due to lack of understanding the crisis. A just-released recorded interview on February 7 with Bob Woodward makes clear that the president knew that the virus was highly contagious, deadly, and spread through the air, yet he continued to intentionally downplay the threat rather than mount an effective and protective response. If the president had lead the nation in the kind of efforts that Governor Cuomo did in New York, there would have been millions fewer cases of the virus and thousands upon thousands fewer deaths. There would be widespread testing and contact tracing. The test positivity rate would be below one percent, as it has been in New York State for over a month. Businesses and schools would be thoughtfully and carefully re-opening, ready to re-adjust if cases start to rise. Instead, Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, is telling the United States to “hunker down and get through this fall and winter, because it’s not going to be easy.” I only hope that people take the advice to heart in their own lives and at the state and local level, because Trump and McConnell are still not helping us mount a national response.

The Trump/Bob Woodward interview I mentioned above was just released because Woodward has a book coming out, part of a spate of books about Donald Trump being published with less than two months to go before the presidential election. These books reveal information that, while perhaps suspected, had not previously been confirmed about the president and his staff. The picture isn’t pretty. While there is some straight-up incompetence and inexperience at play, there is even more corruption, selfishness, greed, and disregard for the Constitution and laws, morals, ethics, and the common good.

Time for the pitch. Make a plan and vote! We need there to be a President Biden in January 2021 in order to have any hope of reclaiming our democracy.

Which brings me to another fear. While there is widespread and credible polling both nationally and in battleground states showing that Biden is leading Trump by several percentage points, the election process itself is under threat. The most frightening is that the Russians, along with several other countries, are once again attempting to interfere with election. This week, a whistleblower came forward with evidence that the administration is knowingly tamping down revealing the extent of the Russian interference, in particular. At the same time, the administration and the Republicans are filing lawsuits to disrupt mail-in voting. The postal service is slowing mail delivery, which could make ballots arrive too late to be counted. The president keeps saying that mail-in ballots lead to widespread fraud, which is absolutely a lie; states and local election boards have numerous, proven safeguards in place to prevent fraud. It is true that the final vote tally will take longer, especially in states that don’t count mail-in votes until days after Election Day. (Of course, some of the delays could have been averted if the Senate had acted on the HEROES Act which would have provided more training, machinery, and personnel to count ballots more quickly.) People need to be aware that we may not have final election results for a couple of weeks. This does not mean there is fraud; it means that election bureaus are diligently following their procedures to report an accurate tally.

Nineteen years ago, despite sorrow and shock, the people of the United States pulled together to help us get through the crisis. Nine years ago, our local community drew together to assist those impacted by the flood. Unfortunately, I don’t see that same sense of solidarity in the country as we face the pandemic, government corruption, and economic catastrophe, along with the long-standing problems of racism, lack of equal access to good-quality education and health care, environmental ruin, and other injustices. Granted, it’s a lot, but we can improve our lives and our nation if we act together. When we say in the Pledge of Allegiance “with liberty and justice for all”, we have to mean it.

SoCS: New York State re-opening

I live in the Southern Tier region of New York State (USA), where we are undertaking a methodical re-opening of businesses after we successfully drastically lowered our number of COVID-19 cases.

Every day, I listen to the press briefings from Governor Cuomo. He has been very transparent on what the state is doing and what the role of the public is in protecting public health during our stay-at-home period and now our phased re-opening.

The Southern Tier region is about to enter Phase 3. One of the services that is allowed in phase 3 is nail salons. Hair salons were allowed to resume, with masks and other safeguards in place in phase 2, but nail salons had to wait for phase three as it involves longer face-to-face interaction.

I don’t do manicures, but I do have an appointment for a haircut in a couple of weeks. After that, I’ll be able to go without the headband that has become part of my wardrobe in order to keep my bangs out of my eyes.

Long bangs is an infinitesimal price to pay for what has been great news for New York State. Unlike other states that were less careful about re-opening businesses, our infection rates have continued to decline. The numbers are constantly monitored with widespread testing and contact tracing for positive tests so that we know we are not starting an outbreak. As soon as the numbers in a region start to creep up, there are plans in place to cut back on the re-opening until the infection rate is under control again.

I’m proud of everyone in New York and our leadership team for the thoughtful, caring, science-based, and successful way we have tackled this challenge. I hope that more states and countries, seeing our approach working so well, will follow our lead and be able to save their people from further suffering from the pandemic.
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “nail.” Join us! Find out how here: https://lindaghill.com/2020/06/12/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-june-13-2020/

2019-2020 SoCS Badge by Shelley!
 https://www.quaintrevival.com/

New York’s reopening plan

I’ve posted several times about how my state is handling the pandemic. Unlike many other states, New York State has taken a methodical, metric-based approach.

The whole state has been under a program called PAUSE, which is a stay-at-home order for all but essential workers and shopping for necessities. Starting on May 15th, certain regions of the state that have met the criteria will be moving into phase one of four for re-opening certain businesses.

My region, the Southern Tier, is qualified to re-open companies with worker and customer safety plans in place in construction, manufacturing, delivery/curbside pick-up retail, wholesale, agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting. The region needs to continue to meet the criteria each week, including testing and having contact tracers available. If criteria continue to be met, other businesses will open in phases. If the statistics show an outbreak is developing, the phased-in businesses will close until all the criteria are again met.

The state has a website called New York Forward, which has up-to-date information about the plan and the current status of each region. There is more information about the phase-in of businesses here. For those who would like more detail, there are many different pages and sections available on different aspects of the plan from the New York Forward main page link above, as well as a 50 page book, which includes some history, the basics of the plan itself, and future goals.

While there are no certainties in dealing with the pandemic, I am reassured that there is a detailed plan with metrics based on science and the experiences of other places dealing with the virus. It’s also good to know that there is continuous monitoring of the situation so that we can adapt the implementation as needed.

For the good of our state and the health and well-being of our residents, I hope the plan works well. If it does, I hope other governments will be able to use it as a template for their own plans.

We are better off if we make thoughtful, science-based decisions. This pandemic has shown how connected the world is. We all need to cooperate if we are ever going to end this diesase.

New York State and plans

Every day, I listen to Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York give his daily coronavirus briefing and take questions from the press.

I am definitely not alone.

I often watch through Facebook Live, so there is a comment stream during the briefing. While some of the people are, like me, New York residents, many others tune in from other states and countries. While there are some trolls, many people thank Governor Cuomo for his candid, factual presentation and his compassion. There are always some calls for him to run for president. I admit to having the occasional, totally improbable political fantasy that both the nominating conventions decide to choose a governor who has handled the pandemic as well as possible to run for president, so that instead of Trump versus Biden, we would have, say, Hogan versus Cuomo. Not going to happen, but I, for one, would breathe easier if it did.

This is a big week for New York State. Our current stay-at-home order expires May 15 and it is expected that some regions, including the Southern Tier where I live, will qualify to enter phase one (of four) for expanding what businesses and services may be opened and under what circumstances. There are a number of criteria to meet before being eligible, including at least a two-week decline of new cases, hospital and intensive care unit availability, and testing and contact tracing capabilities. All the businesses have to have plans in place for safe working conditions and customer delivery protocols. If COVID-19 cases start to increase, the state will go back to its prior level of operations until conditions improve again. The New York plan is based on medical science and the experiences of other countries and cities around the world as they try to increase economic and social activities after outbreaks of the virus. For reference, businesses like hair salons and dine-in restaurants don’t re-open until phase three.

Because of the planning and vigilance of our state government, I feel relatively secure that New York will be able to protect public health while gradually opening more and more public and private entities. I remain very worried, however, about the majority of states who are re-opening without even having had a decline in the number of cases. Indeed, right now, if you take New York out of the national statistics, you find that while New York’s infection rate is on a steady decline, the rest of the country is still on the increase. In addition, some countries that had contained the outbreak, such as Germany and South Korea, are having to back off with some of their re-opening of businesses because their case numbers are rising again.

I am hopeful that our region and other New York State regions that qualify will be able to move forward with our slow and thoughtful plans while still protecting public health. If that happens, I hope other states and countries will study our approach and adapt it to their regions.

With over four million confirmed cases world-wide, we need the best practices devised and enacted as soon as possible around the world.

re-opening fears

Some of the states here in the US are re-opening stores, hair, salons, dine-in restaurants, recreation activities, and other businesses, even though they haven’t met the not-very-ambitious federal benchmarks to do so during the pandemic.  They feel safe enough because they are not large cities like New York City or Chicago and they don’t have thousands of new cases every day in their state – or are ignoring it if they do.

I’m afraid they are ignoring not only science but also the experience of my state, New York.

The health guidelines are that limited re-opening should not occur until a state has had two weeks of decline in the number of cases. The reason for the two week timeframe is that fourteen days is considered the maximum incubation period, although people can develop symptoms as few as two days after exposure. If numbers are declining for two weeks, it signals that the outbreak is under some measure of control, so careful resumption of some business and recreational activities can resume in conjunction with testing widespread enough to quickly detect a rise in cases, in which case stricter measures would be resumed until there was again a two week decline. Not only do the states that are opening not meet the two-week decline criteria but also they don’t have the testing capacity to quickly detect an uptick in cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in studying the virus’s path in the United States, now realize that the strain that has caused so much illness and death in New York came through Europe, not directly from China. This strain appears to be even more virulent than the strain that came to the western US directly from China. During the weeks when the administration was banning travel from China, thousands upon thousands of travellers arrived from Europe to NYC area airports, some of them bringing the virus with them. It’s now estimated that there were 10,000 cases in the NYC area before any were officially recognized as COVID-19; this explains why New York State has so many more cases and, unfortunately, deaths than other states. The virus was already wide-spread in an area with a high population density weeks before anyone realized it.

New York, through closing all but essential or work-from-home businesses and encouraging most people to stay at home except to buy needed supplies, has managed to bring down the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, although not yet for long enough to enter phase one re-opening of some businesses. Plans are being made for eventual re-opening with testing in place to make sure that things will not get so out of hand that our hospitals will be overwhelmed with critical cases. There is the very real possibility that, despite all the planning and precautions, we might have to reverse course and close down again if the numbers start climbing. Until there is a vaccine, it is unlikely we will be able to get the case number down to zero or resume large-scale gatherings.

It’s not that Governor Cuomo and other state leaders don’t want to open more of the economy. They do, but not at the cost of more debilitating illness and death. As a community, we are all responsible for trying to protect the health of others, especially those most vulnerable to complications and those who are working in health care, food service, delivery, transit, custodial, and the other essential businesses that have been continuing to serve throughout the pandemic and who have been getting sick at much higher rates than other New Yorkers.

Our state leaders are also acutely aware of those who are unable to work because of the restrictions in place. There is enhanced unemployment insurance in place, as well as emergency food, utility, health, and homeless outreach programs. They are refusing the false dichotomy of illness/death or the economy, trying to prioritize health and life for everyone so that we are healthy to re-build our economy.

There are some New Yorkers and some folks in other states who are claiming that they have a right to be anywhere they want and do anything they want and that government has never interfered in people’s lives like this. They are overlooking that with our rights, both political and human, come responsibilities. The individual has the right to risk their own health, for example by drinking alcohol, but with that comes the responsibility not to harm others through violence or driving drunk. National and state governments have taken action to protect the public health in prior epidemics, such as the 1918 flu pandemic and the waves of polio that afflicted the world before the development of the vaccine. As I am fond of pointing out, in the Preamble of the Constitution, we the people of the United States established our national government to “promote the general welfare.” Each person has that responsibility to all the others. While some may have fallen into the illusion that individual freedom entitles them to do whatever they want, our system has always been a social one. One person’s freedom can’t interfere with others’ well-being, at least, not without challenge.

As I watch the news of opening of businesses in other states and see people in large gatherings without personal protection, I worry that, within a couple of weeks, there will be coverage of spikes in cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths, especially because some of the states have re-opened with major outbreaks in factories, nursing homes, and prisons, as though those cases won’t spread beyond facility walls. Maybe the strain they have circulating is not the more virulent one we have suffered with in New York.

Or, maybe, our collective burden of sorrow will be increased, knowing that learning lessons from New York’s experience could have saved heartbreak and lives, if only people had heeded them.

time slips by

I know some people who are under shelter in place or stay home orders are struggling with finding ways to fill time, but I am having the opposite problem. There always seems to be more to do than time/energy/brainpower permits.

Part of this is the continuation of dealing with grief. A year ago at this time, we were in the last few weeks of my mother’s life, so there is sadness with the coming of spring. My heart goes out to all those who are currently in nursing homes and hospitals who are not allowed to have visitors. While those last weeks with Nana were difficult, it would have been even more difficult not being there to bring her ice water and chat between naps.

This personal grief is enveloped by the global grief of dealing with the pandemic, its toll on people, and its laying bare all the inequities of society. The pandemic is bringing out the selfishness and greed of some, the suffering of most, and the generosity and community spirit of many. While some just want to “get back to normal” and are willing to risk public health to do it, more and more are talking about “building back better.”

The #BuildBackBetter movement is encouraging. It calls on us to examine the past and present so that we can build a better future. Here in the United States, the problem of lack of access to quality, affordable health care has been made even more apparent, especially for black and brown folks, immigrants, people living in poverty, those without homes, and elders. So many losing their jobs and their health insurance along with it also illustrates the inherent weakness in our current healthcare system.

Many of our essential workers, including caregivers and transit, food service, janitorial, grocery, and agricultural workers, are also our lowest-paid. These people are risking their lives to keep basic services going for less money than they would make if they were collecting enhanced unemployment and too many have contracted, or even succumbed to, COVID-19. My hope is that the new-found appreciation many feel for these essential workers will lead to living wages for all jobs, benefits for those who are without paid work that reflect human dignity and care, and a realization that wealth is created by the society, not just the business owners.

While grief and fear can be mind-numbing, it is a comfort to hear about all those who are serving others, dispensing accurate information, and planning for a responsible path forward. I admit that I watch or listen to a lot of coronavirus coverage. I want to stay up to date with the science and the demographics, which is especially important here in New York State, which has the largest number of cases in the country. I listen to our governor, Andrew Cuomo, give his daily briefings because he is very truthful, forthright, and compassionate. It is comforting to know where we are, even when the statistics are unnerving, because there are plans unfolding that are modified as the circumstances change. As our caseload in the state starts to come down, Governor Cuomo is talking more about how we will move into the next phase. He is a big proponent of building back better, socially, economically, justly, and in accord with the best science available for human, environmental, and climate health. This gives me hope that some good will come out of a horrifying situation. Most of the time, I see the Governor through Facebook Live, so there are comments coming in; it’s amazing how many in other states and countries tune in to his briefings for the facts and for a practical, compassionate response to our current challenges. Sadly, the same cannot be said for White House briefings, which I avoid.

I am fortunate that things in my household are on an even keel. I am sad, though, to have family and friends who are suffering because of the lockdown or the virus itself. It’s hard not to be able to go to them and help, though I try to do what I can by phone or online.

I am not struggling with staying at home, though. I am pretty high on the introversion scale, so I am content to be at home with my family. I don’t know how I would react, though, if I lived alone, which is something I have never done.

I do spend more time on shopping and meal planning/preparation than I used to. We are still having significant shortages in our area, so weekly shopping has turned into several hours in several stores to find basic items. There are more meals to plan for because we can’t go out to dinner and because everyone is here for all their meals every day. We do sometimes get takeout from a local restaurant, but there is definitely more cooking going on at home.

I’ve been trying to keep up with my social and environmental justice activities online and have taken the opportunity to attend some webinars. The Binghamton Poetry Project and my local poetry-workshop group have been meeting via Zoom. I’ve also finished revisions of my chapbook and have been slogging through the time-consuming and anxiety-producing process of finding contests to enter. Seven and counting…

I do write blog posts now and then…

I wish I could say that I was reading more. I admit that, most days, I don’t even get through my email. By evening, I find that my brain can only handle watching television while playing not-too-taxing computer games. As I’ve been saying for years now, it’s often not so much about time as brainpower.

How are you all doing wherever you find yourselves during this pandemic?