By: Keith S. Shikowitz
Amid the nation falling into near panic mode over the Coronavirus, people are hoarding everything from toilet paper and paper towels, to frozen French fries and beef and chicken from the meat counter. At 11 New Hempstead Road on March 16, cooler heads prevailed as County Executive Ed Day declared a state of emergency in the county and tried to assure everyone that everything is under control in the county.
Day got right to the matter at hand. “Let me from the outset speak of one thing. I want everyone who is here to know that this is a rapidly evolving scenario. I would remind people that the first case of the Coronavirus (in Rockland) was on March 8, only 8 days ago. We had the governor on today announcing his objectives. We’re getting info in real time. We’re not getting prepared previous to that.”
He told the crowd that our residents are getting information raw and that this is why they spent time over this weekend, to ensure there was a cohesive message. “Without a cohesive message, there is fear. That’s something we can NOT tolerate here. I want to reassure people that much has been done and is being done. Most of it revolves around planning, operations and personnel. That has mostly been internal and not publicized but to insure, services, health and safety. We’re here today to provide specific information and direction to our community.
After introducing many of the county and state dignitaries who were present, he continued. “We’ve seen a lot happen very rapidly here. That does not work well when it comes to governance. I just want to get everyone up to speed as to where we are here in Rockland County. Before I joined you here today, I signed the paperwork to formally declare a local state of emergency for Rockland County.”
The state of emergency will be in effect for 30 days through April 15 and may be extended at that time depending on the circumstances. The last time this happened was during the measles epidemic.
Day signed four orders as a part of this declaration and added that additional orders can be implemented as the situation is warranted. “First is the emergency school closing order. I want to take a moment to explain how we got here. County Executives have NO authority over school districts. The school districts have obviously run into a critical situation, which is two-fold. The health and safety of the children and the families they go back to at night.”
An additional problem for the districts is that New York state has a mandated 180 days of education that districts must meet in order to get state funding for the schools. Friday they were able to get a commitment from the governor that the 180 – day mandate would be suspended. “I had conversations with our state representatives, including senator Carlucci where they will try to codify that, so they have that in place.”
Day had two options left in this situation. “The only two people, after a declaration of an emergency, who can close the schools, is either the governor or the County Executive. The governor opted at that time not to make a local decision. At that point Mary Jean Marsico, the head of BOCES and told me very clearly that all of our superintendents of every district in this county were unanimous in saying they need to have the schools closed. That left it to me to make that decision and that is how we got here right now.”
This decision was made over this past weekend and was based on the request of Rockland County BOCES and all of the local superintendents. “To that end, we are ordering ALL public and private schools that serve grades K – 12 to suspend all classroom and extracurricular functions for two weeks effective 12 am March 17, that is midnight this evening. Private schools have expressed a little more concern that they need a little more prep time and that will go into effect the next day for them because as a practical matter, our private schools of all denominations don’t interact routinely with our public school structure. We’re giving them an extra day to comply with the order.”
Additionally, all universities, colleges, public and private post secondary educational facilities must exclude students from those facilities before 12 am Wednesday March 18.”
Taking into account that some students in colleges may not be able to get home, they are not required to close dorms or dining halls. “We’re not here to make things worse. We’re here to try to accommodate as we can and accomplish the mission as we must.” The one caveat to this is that non – residents are prohibited from visiting housing or dining facilities.
Facilities solely dedicated to day care, preschool, and pre-kindergarten are exempt from this order. “We understand that parents still need a place to take their young children while they go to work. We are taking this step in service to the health and safety of our children and the families they return to. We recognize this will be a hardship for parents across the county.”
“I recognize today that it was televised that the governor has ordered a similar action. That may be the case and obviously he has the authority to do that. I want to be clear, we have been working on this. We have planned on this and we are doing it in a complete manner so we can be sure that every T is crossed, and I is dotted, and our children and families are as safe as they can be.”
The second order dealt with the problem of people panic hoarding of essential and some non -essential items in the stores, leaving nothing for others who need them. “Secondly is a hoarding prevention order. I am sure by now that we have all seen, either in person or in the media, the empty shelves in many of our stores. I know I have seen it myself. This is due to really unnecessary panic. This is part of the issue I was referring to when information gets out raw and there seems to be no sense of a chain of command as it relates from the top at the Presidency to down here in Rockland County and the towns and villages.”
He says we must do our best to ensure that all of our resident have a chance to purchase the medicine, the soap, cleaning products, food, baby formula and even toilet paper that they need. “I’ll give you an example to give you an idea as to how bad this can get. We have women who are pregnant right now who are getting these items, formula for their soon to be born babies. We have babies out there now who can’t get the formula.”
This is important issue that needs to be dealt now. The full list of restricted items has been distributed by our office for consumer protection. Local vendors and county inspectors will be visiting stores starting tomorrow (March 17) to make sure this order is being followed. Generally speaking, under these orders only TWO commercial units, think two bottles of hand sanitizer or two packages of toilet paper can be sold to a household or business each day.
“We understand this is an unprecedented situation and has made all people fearful. We all are neighbors and we must do better. We must take care of each other. That’s the first part of what a community is all about. This order will allow more people to buy the things we all need in our daily lives. We also want to compliment the local stores that have already implemented these common sense limits. Thank you. Thank you for looking out for the people of this county. I will tell you this. We are serious when it comes to those who do not comply with this law, the executive order. There are consumer protection people who will be personally calling the stores in this county. They will be out tomorrow in force. They will be visible. They will ensure that the people in this county get a fair shake when it comes to getting the basics they need to survive.
Day asked for residents to report any instances of price gouging to the office of consumer protection. “There will be no tolerance for ANYONE trying to take advantage of the people of this county.”
Third is the COVID19 test protective order. The reason for this is very simple. They have heard of cases, thankfully not here locally, yet, of people who have complained of symptoms of COVID19, visited their doctor or another location to be tested and then failed to heed the recommendations of the medical professional to remain quarantined at home until the test results have been received.
“This order requires people who are awaiting test results to stay home and avoid interaction with the public until their test results are returned. That’s what they’re supposed to do. At which time they will receive further instructions from their physicians or the public health authorities.”
Violating these orders is considered to be a class B misdemeanor and anyone found guilty of that level of crime in New York, faces a maximum penalty of 3 months in jail or 1 year probation. In addition a fine of $500 or double the amount of the defendant’s gain from the commission of the crime may be imposed. “
In addition to the B misdemeanor charge and maybe more significantly, we’re utilizing the same authority we were using during the measles outbreak. Violators of orders # 1 and # 3 will also face fines from our commissioner of health of $2000 a day for violation under the Rockland County Sanitary Code. As we said during the first measles state of emergency nearly a year ago, the goal here is not fine or imprison anyone. We are only interested in getting compliance to protect the health and safety of ALL of our residents.”
Of all of the industries being affected by this virus, the restaurant businesses are going to be hit very hard as well, some say more than many other industries because they rely on people spending major amounts of time in their establishments to make their money and for the staff to get tips for their service.
“Lastly, 4th order. The buffet and salad protection order.” Adding a little levity, Day said, ‘I’m getting hungry just reading this right now.’ This order will limit buffets and salad bars to prepackaging their food in order to limit the potential for the spread of the disease. Again, this is one of those more minor items that people have seen and wonder what can be done. Today we’re doing something about that.”
He then introduced Dr. Mary Jean Marsico the Chief Operating Officer of Rockland BOCES.
“I first want to thank executive Day and his staff and most importantly the Superintendents in Rockland County. This was a very hard decision for us to make as governmental officers, as education leaders and mainly as public servants.”
She spoke of the committed to the well being of our learners, of our staff, and of our citizens in Rockland County all of those here today have. Assuring the crowd that all of the school districts are committed to ensuring that all students will continue to have access to educational activities, enrichment and reinforcement activities and nutrition services during this time of crisis and disruption to our schools and our community.
“To the families that are out there, we understand the hardship that comes with this. Please listen to the messaging from your school districts. Listen to the robocalls, the text messages, the emails and most importantly, go on to your districts website because the information is changing so rapidly. ALL of the superintendents are committed to having that information be up to date as much as possible.
Marsico added that they are committed to ensuring that in each district, every child that needs nutritional services will be getting them and the plans for that are on the websites. “If they are not up yet, they will be by today, as will the closing procedures. As for the governor’s statement on child care services, we just found that out so I am really not capable of commenting on that because we as a county are trying to figure that piece out. I want to thank everyone. I want the families and the community of Rockland to know how much, we, the school leaders know how hard this is for families. We are here for you.”
She closed by stating, “We are doing the best we can. We will continue to provide education remotely. We will have distribution centers for the food and we will continue to update you as information comes in. We know that working together with the county. Listening to the department of health. Working with the school districts will allow this community to preserve itself and to move forward.”
Day acknowledged Dr. Marsico’s efforts and service to the children here in Rockland County, and added that she does an amazing job. “The actions we are taking today are very specific. We’re asking everyone to think long and hard about where they go and what they do over the next couple of weeks. This is the information we have received from the federal government, Dr. Fauci, that the next two weeks may be critical. We must act to prevent the further spread of this disease. Right now I would like to introduce one who led us through a crisis before and is in the midst of doing it a second time now, our health commissioner Patricia Rubin.”
“I am here today NOT to alarm anyone, but to inform all of you what our community must do in the coming days to navigate through the coming situation with COVID19. I have been advising residents for the past week to practice social distancing, which means remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining a distance of approximately 6 feet from others when at all possible.” Rubin stated.
She went a step further asking residents to stay HOME as much as they can. Her reason was that we are seeing community spread of this disease, which means that you should prepare for possible exposure where ever you are.
“The surest way to prevent this and any disease is to avoid contact with it. I’m asking that residents who are able to work from home, to please do so. Please do everything you can to minimize your contact with others. For those who MUST go to work outside the home, you must very seriously follow the precautions we have heard so much about. Wash your hands frequently. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. Avoid shaking hands.”
Advice for residents in their homes is to routinely clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces. “I CAN NOT stress this enough, if you are sick, STAY HOME!”
She updated the current cases, that Rockland County had a total of 18 positive cases (as of this conference) of Coronavirus COVID19. The department of health is working to track these cases and will make residents aware of any public exposures as we go forward. There were not any additional public exposures as of this morning. “
“Again, this is an evolving situation and we’ll update you this afternoon if there are. Like I said earlier. It is now possible that you all can be exposed to COVID19 anywhere in our county. It’s more important than ever that we as neighbors look out for those who are very more at risk of getting sick from COVID19. That includes older adults, people with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, lung disease. Please be a good neighbor and check in in them occasionally during this trying time. Information, accurate information is imperative. We will contact you and let you know as we have further information.” Rubin said.
“Let me be very clear. We are disrupting life for one purpose and one purpose only. We are aimed at one goal. We are attempting to slow down the spread of this virus to avoid overburdening our health care system. Right now we are seeing a wave. Cases are increasing. Not only because more testing is being done, but because the disease is spreading.” Day stated sternly.
He pointed out that the only effective way to prevent transmission of the disease is to do what Dr. Rubin said and stay home as much as possible. “Additionally, we are making requests to local businesses to, let me be clear, these are not orders, they are voluntary measures. We are asking our stores to allow older residents and those with underlying health conditions to shop during the first hour when they are open each day.”
This will allow those who are most at risk the chance to get the items they need without the fear of having to stand in a long line. In a unifying tone he asked the cooperation of all of the Rockland community in that endeavor. He also announced a partial activation of the emergency operations center. “We are doing everything we can to curb the spread of this disease and continue to do so. As we begin to grasp the full fiscal magnitude and effects of this outbreak, I am immediately imposing austerity measures on Rockland County government.”
Since he has had the county government doing since he took office, they will not spend money the government does not have. This is being accomplished by curtailing all discretionary purchases and they may implement further measures as they become necessary.
“It is clear and obvious that our economy is taking a hit because of COVID19. It would be reckless of us not to take action to prepare for the potential downturn in revenue that helps to provide services to the people of this county. However, know this, Rockland County government stays open for business and essential services will continue to be delivered and our approach is organized, systematic and intentional. We have evaluated our workspaces and are adjusting to meet the social distancing objectives.”
One area of governmental services that may suffer from this are the services that require face to face contact. These services may be modified and in some cases, curtailed. Day asked people to keep an eye on the county website for changes to the in person services now being offered.
The governor made a summary announcement of reducing the workforce by 50%. This is one of those things in which Day understands the governor’s intention and that the best way we can get this done is to get it done at the local level.
He is going to try to achieve and strive to the 50% number. “Understand this, in 2014 when I took office, we had over 2200 employees. Earlier than that we had over 3000. Right now, we have 1709. We are still responsible to provide services, and we will make every effort to comply with the direction of the governor. As we take these necessary precautions, we must not forget about our friends and neighbors. It is more important than ever that we come together that we work together that we support those who are struggling.”
Showing support for the local restaurants, he suggested to consider ordering takeout. “As you know by now the malls are shut down. I have heard about our great local restaurants coming up with new ways to serve you. From delivery or bringing the food to your car as you wait in the parking lot.
“We are embarking on a very difficult journey and I have faith in all of you. My friends and my neighbors. Together we can overcome anything that stands in our way. We have shown that time and time again over the last number of years here in Rockland County. We did this before. We’ll do it again.” Day said in a reassuring and confident tone.
Day took questions from the crowd on a variety of topics. A couple of major points fell on the order number 3 and the effect of this on small businesses and how they can get financial help to weather this storm.
What happens if people get tested and don’t follow the direction of the doctors? The law states they are going to be fined. How are you going to know if someone walking the streets got tested and is violating the orders, short of violating privacy rules?
“We had the same situation with the measles. We do find out a fair amount of times. The goal here is not to be punitive. The goal here is for people to understand that it is critically important that they do follow the directions of the medical professionals. At the end of the day, if someone comes to our attention, and they refuse to do what they have to do, our health department will impose the fines under the sanitary code.”
Small businesses are going to be suffering more than big retailers in this emergency. “As far as small businesses, who has the authority to declare a disaster, because none of us in the business industry can apply for an SBA economic hardship loan to get us through the next few months, unless we are declared a disaster.” Alice, from New City Bowl asked.
“Alice as we have communicated on Facebook yesterday about this very item, the emergency declaration is what I can do here. The language seems to include disaster so I don’t know where the disconnect is, but certainly I will have you converse with one of our attorneys.” Day responded.
Alice added, “Just so you know, on the website, to be eligible our area has to be on the list of disaster areas. We’re not on there.”
“We will look into it and see if we can get that done.”
During the measles outbreak last year, the Hasidic community was hard hit. This virus is going to present challenges to this community again. The community took all measures to help to prevent the spread of the measles and now is doing the same with COVID19.
Yisroel Kahan, a leader in the Monsey Hasidic Community said, “There are a lot of lives and we need to protect them. Ourselves, the children, the elderly. It’s the unknown which is the scary part. We’re just finding out what this beast is all about.”
What have is being done in Monsey to keep things from getting out of control? “Extra hygiene measures, notices in all communal places, stores and schuls. If you have a fever. If you traveled anywhere. Whether county, state, federal at the CDC level, whatever information is put out there.”
The biggest questions Kahan gets from people is, ‘What am I supposed to do now? There’s still a lack of information. Where can I get a mask? I was at a store where there was a possible exposure. It was a clothing store. I was there, but I wasn’t there when she was there. I was there when she was there, but I didn’t have direct contact with her. What do I do? “Part of this is we don’t know because this is so new. People want to do the right thing, but if you don’t have the information. Do you know how many questions I got like that?”
What precautions are being taken at the synagogues with regards to services? They are not closing down services. They are scaling back. According to Kahan, last week 500 was the cap. Synagogues that were larger had broken down to different parts of the building. “Now it’s down to 50 so it’s going to affect more. But again, people want to be healthy. People want to do the right thing. As long as the information is coming and we get the right information from the state and local authorities we can do it.”
Day’s general message to the residents of the Rockland County Community was that the government and all of its agencies and other community organizations are doing everything they can to ensure their health and safety.