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New York State

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said health services could be deeply affected without funds. Photo by Julianne Mosher

After weeks of warnings and missives about an upcoming budget shortfall, Suffolk officials finally published this upcoming year’s budget, one that has to take into consideration an apparent $437 million deficit over the next two years. Cuts won’t be instituted until the middle of 2021.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) revealed a 2021 recommended operating budget of $3.197 billion, representing $33 million less than the current year’s budget. It is a reaction to a total revenue shortfall of $325 million in 2020.

In a proposed budget released Oct. 9, the county would be letting go 500 full-time employees. The county exec said it would also mean a reduction in health care and mental health services, the loss of two full classes of trainees at the police academy and the elimination of 19 bus routes. 

Most cuts will be implemented July 1, 2021. County officials said this gives time in case some federal aid is received in the future.

“We have submitted a COVID-19 budget with cuts that would have been unimaginable just a short time ago,” Bellone said on a call with reporters Oct. 13. “These cuts should not happen, these are cuts that are devastating in many ways and would in effect undermine our recovery.”

The budget accounts for a sales tax loss from 2019 to 2020 of an estimated $131.7 million. The anticipated sales tax for 2021 is still $102.5 million less than 2019’s figures.

Among other losses across the board, the one increase seems to be property taxes from a real estate boom on Long Island. Suffolk County received $4 million more than last year, and anticipates $18.6 million more in 2021 than this current year.

In expenditures, contractual expenses and employee benefits are also set to marginally increase.

The county expects a negative fund balance for 2021 of about $176.98 million. Overall, Bellone said Suffolk could be looking at a cumulative $460 million deficit within the next year.

This year’s budget was originally set to roll in back in September, but it has since been delayed until the start of this month. The projected budget also may be another general cry for help to the federal government. Suffolk officials also decry the withholding of state aid to the tune of $1.9 billion to local municipalities.

Cutting employees would save about $25 million next year. The bus route cuts, along with reductions to the Suffolk County Accessible Transportation bus service affecting a total of 2,500 riders of both systems, will save $18 million. The police class cuts will save approximately $20 million, while a 50% cut across the board for contract agencies, which include substance abuse clinics, mental health providers, domestic violence shelters and gang prevention programs, would save another $8 million in 2021 and annualized savings of $16 million.

The budget also shows an overall 1.9% increase in taxes for the police district, though that remains under the New York State tax cap.

Bellone has constantly reiterated Suffolk’s need for federal funds over the past few months, holding press conference after press conference to reiterate loss of services because of COVID-19-induced budget shortfalls. Republicans in the Legislature, however, have consistently attacked the executive for what they have called fiscal mismanagement over the past few years, citing Suffolk’s bond downgrades and a report from Tom DiNapoli (D), the New York State comptroller, saying Suffolk was the most fiscally stressed county in the state in 2019.

Bellone, on the other hand, claimed he inherited in 2012 a $500 million deficit but that the County finished 2019 with a surplus. He added the county would have been on track for $50 million surplus in 2020 that would have wiped out the accumulated deficit prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suffolk did receive $257 million in CARES Act funding in April, as well as an additional $26.6 million for public transportation. Officials have said most or all that funding has been spent or earmarked, and it does not help cover overall losses.

Centereach High School in the Middle Country School District. The district superintendent is just one of many concerned about impended state aid cuts. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Schools are staring down the barrel of funding cuts because of the COVID-19 crisis.

While students have been returning to their new normal of hybrid classes, remote learning and plastic barriers between desks, school districts across New York state are concerned about the news surrounding a potential 20% state funding cut.

Elwood Super Ken Bossert, pictured above before the pandemic, said every single school will need to make painful cuts if things don’t go their way. Photo from Heather Mammolito

According to New York State Education Department, the State Division of the Budget has begun withholding 20% of most local aid payments, forcing reductions in some payments to school districts across the state. The reductions in aid, combined with increased costs during pandemic times, could affect not only students, but community members too.  

“All public schools throughout New York state will have to make deep and painful cuts if federal assistance in the form of school aid is not secured,” said Ken Bossert, superintendent of Elwood school district. “The governor’s proposal of reducing aid by 20% will impact districts that rely heavily on aid in a devastating way. Not only will programs and staffing be redacted, the gap between the ‘haves and the have-nots’ will widen.”

Mark Secaur, superintendent of Smithtown school district, noted that during the height of the pandemic in New York last spring, the state adopted a budget that contained three review periods, in which local aid distributions might be reduced on a rolling basis, based on the revenues the state received. 

“On August 18, districts throughout New York state received a state aid payment for the 2019-2020 school year that withheld 20% of the expected payment,” he said. “Also included was a note that all future payments would be reduced by 20% in the absence of federal relief.”

Secaur added that for Smithtown, this equates to a potential loss of upward of $9 million in state aid. 

“When developing our 2020-2021 school budget, the district took into consideration the potential loss of state aid and made adjustments,” he said. “However, these losses, coupled with the unfunded expenditures required for the safe return of students, will likely force the district to significantly utilize the fund balance and reserves to balance the budget.”

In addition, the budget doesn’t cover the costs that are protecting children returning to their classrooms. 

“Cleaning supplies, dividers for rooms … the cost is close to $4 million,” said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country school district.

That sum didn’t include the cost to keeping the schools operational — even when students weren’t in them when the pandemic hit. 

“There was still a cost to keep the schools running,” Gerold added. “It was a rough couple of months.”

Gerard Poole, superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River school district, agreed.

“In a time when students need more, we won’t be able to provide that,” he said. 

While Poole and his peers are trying to stay optimistic, and are pleased to have students back, he wonders if it will be sustainable. “It’s an uncertain time — it won’t be the easiest thing for districts to put a budget together this year,” he said. “We just have to take it day by day.”

“We’re trying to plan for a budget without knowing what’s going to happen.”

— Roberta Gerold

While each district is different on the Island, they can all agree that continuing to plan during an uncertain time is very difficult. 

“We’re trying to plan for a budget without knowing what’s going to happen,” Gerold said. “If we have the info, we can figure that out. … It’s a scary time for sure.”

Miller Place school district declined to comment but did release a letter Sept. 3 penned to elected officials, asking for their support.

“As our elected officials we implore you act quickly to stop any and all federal and state reductions regarding payments to New York state school districts,” the letter said. “As district leaders we remain focused on the mission of returning students to our classrooms, and providing them with the social, emotional and academic supports they need in order to achieve their 2020-21 instructional goals.”

The letter continued, “Please recognize any reductions in federal or state aid payments would dramatically reduce our ability to sustain our district’s fiscal health, as well as maintain the support needed to ensure our students and staff physical health.”

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PJ Lobster House is just one of several local businesses whose owners say inspectors have repeatedly shown up to the restaurant around dinner time in a small, two-week period. Photo by Kyle Barr

Local restaurant owners have reached out to regional officials saying the New York State Liquor Authority inspections meant to determine if they’re complying with state mandates have become more than excessive, but actually damaging to their businesses.

‘I think they were making some restaurants sort of the poster children for: if you don’t comply, you face some significant penalties.’

—Kevin Law

A letter dated Aug. 24 saying just that was signed by Port Jefferson Village, Port Jeff chamber of commerce and BID leaders and sent to Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association. It was also copied to County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and Cara Longworth, regional director of Empire State Development. Letter writers argued that the SLA inspections have put too much onus on restaurants when they’re barely struggling to get by.

“Please realize we totally agree that inspections need to take place and strive to have our

business owners here operate in full compliance,” the letter reads. “However, we are concerned that overemphasis is being put on our restaurants — rather than the bars that remain open after the kitchens are closed and continue to serve alcohol until 4 a.m.”

The letter further states that restaurant owners have seen groups of four come in at a time, usually around dinnertime, sometimes not showing ID, with one armed with a pistol and wearing a bulletproof vest.

James Luciano, the owner of PJ Lobster House, said he has personally seen SLA inspections come through five times within a 14-day period at about 7 p.m. each time. The agents, though courteous, informed him that they were not from the SLA but from a New York State Police task force. A group of men, one armed, strolling into an eating area when people are sitting down for dinner does not make a good impression on diners, he argued.

“I am not certain that is the perception that we want the general public to see,” Luciano said. “I stressed to them that this was borderline harassment.”

PJ Lobster House is not the only local bar or restaurant that’s experienced a heavy hand with inspections. One Junior’s Spycoast employee related seeing a massive number of inspections in just two weeks. Danfords Hotel & Marina has been previously cited for SLA violations July 4 as well, according to state documents.

Though he said he has not heard from the inspectors since just before the letter was sent, he and other business owners have experienced the stress of constant inspections.

New York State has, according to the latest numbers as of Aug. 28, suspended the liquor licenses for 168 businesses for not complying with COVID regulations, though the vast majority were businesses centered in the five New York City boroughs. Later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Sept. 7 that seven bars and restaurants in New York state had their licenses revoked. Five of those were from Suffolk County.

The number of inspections, however, has yet to slow down. The governor’s office announced SLA and New York State Police task force members visited 1,064 establishments just on Sept. 6. Per the governor’s near-daily reports, inspectors conduct at least several hundred inspections daily.

In order to carry out reopening and COVID guidelines enforcement, New York has been broken up into regional economic development councils. The local task force, or “control room” contains members of the LIA, Bellone, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran (D), among others. It is captained by Longworth.

It’s a balancing act, trying to keep businesses healthy while avoiding a resurgence of the virus that would surely shut these businesses down for good. LIA’s Law said he received Port Jeff Village’s letter and has brought it up to members of the control room, whom he said were entirely sympathetic to the issues restaurants were having. Law, who has been at the forefront of Long Island’s reopening plan from the start, said hearing that armed and armored individuals have helped conduct inspections concerned everyone sitting at their daily video control center meetings.

“It’s impossible for them to inspect every restaurant and bar, because there’s just so many of them, so I think they were making some restaurants sort of the poster children for: if you don’t comply, you face some significant penalties,” Law said. “I think it was important that word did get out there so some businesses would comply. We all know with every type of category with every business, you have good guys and you have a couple knuckleheads who don’t obey by the rules and they ruin it for others.”

He said he and others did appreciate the village officials’ idea of focusing more on inspections of bars open in the early morning hours instead of weekday dinner time.

Though at the same time, Law said he and the local control room are only really in advisory positions, and it would require change on the state level to truly impact the rate of current inspections.

Either way, restaurants still remain in a tough spot, and Luciano said he and so many others continue to struggle.

“Our landlords and vendors don’t take IOUs,” the PJ Lobster House owner said. “We’ve done everything that has been asked. The numbers are way lower than they were. It’s been over six months. We can’t hang on that much longer, we are on a sinking ship.”

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PJ officials said soon all streetlights in the village will be replaced with energy effecient versions. Photo by Kyle Barr

The faces of Port Jeff officials are practically glowing with the news.

The New York Power Authority announced they are finally getting underway with it’s partnership with the Village of Port Jefferson to install energy efficient LED streetlights throughout the village. 

The nearly $2.4 million upgrade, implemented and financed by the power authority, includes the replacement of more than 1,100 decorative and cobra head style streetlights throughout the village with energy-saving LED fixtures. NYPA is providing upfront financing for the project, with payments to the power made in the years following from the cost-savings created by the reduced energy use.

“This project is a win-win for the environment and the village, with the expected reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as well as the significant savings the village will realize in terms of energy costs and maintenance once the energy-efficient LED lights are installed,” Mayor Margot Garant said in a release.

As part of the project, NYPA will also be replacing more than 700 additional interior and exterior lighting fixtures at village buildings and parks. NYPA is providing Port Jefferson with $225,000 in SMART city funding grants to support the project.

The project is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 500 metric tons a year, or the equivalent of taking more than 100 cars off the road. 

In a release, the power authority said installation will begin this month and comply with all COVID-19 precautions.

“The replacement of more than 1,100 streetlights in Port Jefferson is a demonstration of the state’s steadfast commitment to fighting climate change and saving taxpayer money through innovative energy programs,” said NYPA president and CEO Gil Quiniones.

The new initiative is part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) Smart Street Lighting NY program, which calls for at least 500,000 streetlights throughout the state to be replaced with LED technology by 2025. NYPA has, or is in the process of installing more than 90,000 LED streetlights at municipalities across the state.

Stony Brook University said the 17 students who were positive with COVID-19 were spread across campus with limited possibility of contact. File photo by Kyle Barr

Stony Brook University unveiled it is currently tracking 17 positive cases of COVID-19, with officials saying all are asymptomatic and have been quarantined.

In a release on the university’s website published Sept. 2, SBU said the 17 cases were as a result of testing of more than 3,000 students on West Campus since Aug. 11 by Student Health Services. The new confirmed cases, as of Wednesday, were in addition to the one other confirmed case officials identified Aug. 28.

All 18 positives are being retested to identify any false positives. The students have been asked to go into quarantine, along with any close associates who were asked to self-isolate.

The fall 2020 semester started Aug. 24 for undergrads.

On Aug. 27 Gov. Andrew Cuomo updated the state’s guidelines for universities and colleges reopening. If colleges have 100 cases or if the number of cases equal 5% of their population or more, they must go to remote learning for two weeks. After that time if things do not improve, the school could potentially be closed to in-person learning for the rest of the semester.

On Thursday, Sept. 3, SUNY Oneonta announced they were cancelling in-person classes for the rest of the Fall after close to 390 students were tested positive for COVID-19.

Stony Brook said the 17 positive cases were spread all throughout the campus, and that none were roommates and there was at least one positive case in each resident hall. Six of the students who tested positive for COVID-19 are taking only online classes and of the 12 students who tested positive and were attending in-person classes, the university said none were in the same classroom environment. According to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, only 19% of students are registered for in-person classes.

The university said in the news statement it was continuing to test. 

“If there is a need to shift to an operating status of fully online instruction for a 14-day period or longer, we will communicate with the community directly and promptly,” the statement read.

 

Mount Sinai senior running-back Matthew LoMonaco drags a Babylon defender out of the back field in the semi-final playoff round at home Nov. 15, 2019. Photo by Bill Landon

Players in Suffolk schools will be hitting the courts and fields come the start of the September sports season … well, some will be.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Aug. 24 that certain sports are allowed to start up Sept. 21, though all leagues must stay in their home region until Oct. 19. 

Sports have been divided into what are considered low or high risk. Low risk sports include soccer, tennis, cross county, track, field hockey and swimming. High risk sports would be football, wrestling, rugby, hockey and volleyball. How the distinction between the two was made was up to the New York State Department of Health.

All those sports deemed high risk will be allowed to practice starting Sept. 21 but not to play against other teams until after Dec. 31. 

There are still lingering questions about how some sports were determined to be high risk while others remain medium or low. The Department of Health guidance about sports details that a low risk sport is mostly individual activities like running, swimming or golf, or any sport that maintains little cross contamination of equipment. Medium risk sports have more but still manageable interaction between shared equipment (or the ability to clean between use) but with limited ability to maintain distance, which includes sports like baseball, soccer or even flag football. Games that need to have shared contact with equipment like volleyball or games that mandate close confines like wrestling are off the table, at least for the rest of this year.

Not every region will be participating in the fall. Nassau County school officials and Section VIII, which handles Nassau high school sports, have already made the decision this week to postpone all sports until the start of 2021. Meanwhile members of the Section XI board, which governs Suffolk sports, voted to host its sports season as described by the governor’s parameters.

What the exact guidelines for practices and games is still to be determined. Section XI wrote in a release Aug. 26 that the New York State Public High School Athletic Association has already met twice based on Cuomo’s Aug. 24 announcement. The association said it will come up with guidance for school districts to help them get started on their sports seasons.

“Over 200,000 students participate in the fall high school sports seasons and yesterday’s announcement was certainly a positive step for all those athletes,” said NYSPHSAA’s Executive Director Robert Zayas.

There will be several known restrictions for the start of the fall sports season. Indoor facilities can be at no more than 50% occupancy and districts must limit spectators to no more than two spectators per player. This is in addition to the normal masks and social distancing guidelines.

Coaches whose students will be left out of the chance for a fall sports season said it’s a hard pill to swallow. More so because of the vagaries still left for how the sports year will progress after December.

“I am in contact with the kids and I think all they want is a plan — something concrete — whether we play in the fall, or a condensed schedule starting in February,” said Mount Sinai High School Football Coach Vinnie Ammirato. “It would just be nice to get some clarity and a plan.”

Still, he understands why the decision was made.

“Everyone wants to play — with that said we need to keep the health and safety of all the players and coaches at the forefront.”

SBU Uses Up Half of Rainy Day Fund to Balance Budget

Stony Brook University is facing a huge financial hole in 2020. File photo from Stony Brook University

The COVID-19 crisis has exacted a heavy toll on Stony Brook University’s finances, creating a $109.6 million deficit on the academic and research side.

Maurie McInnis was named SBU’s sixth president. In a stunning letter made public on her president’s web page, she details the huge financial hole the school will have to navigate in the near future. Photo from SBU

The pandemic cost the hospital and clinic an estimated $58 million, while it also cost the academic and research campus over $74.6 million in the past financial year, which includes $35 million in refunded fees, $12 million in lost revenue from cultural programs and facilities rentals, and $8.5 million in extra expenses, including cleaning and supplies, student quarantine costs and technology costs, according to message from new Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis published on her SBU president web page Aug. 12.

Through a number of steps, including hiring freezes, the university has attempted to offset these costs, but that won’t be enough. The school is tapping into its central reserve fund, essentially the university’s rainy day pool, reducing it by over 50% in one year. McInnis, in an open letter on her web page, said this “is completely unsustainable.”

Starting today, McInnis will hold a series of virtual campus conversations to provide more details and address questions, while she and university leaders search for long-term solutions to address a host of challenges that have presented a serious headwind to the school’s future budget.

In disclosing detailed information, McInnis wrote that she believes such disclosures will help the campus work together towards solutions.

“I believe that it is only by being open and candid and providing clear information that we can come together as a community to tackle our shared challenges,” she wrote in her letter.

In her letter to the campus, McInnis detailed specific costs, while she also outlined the steps Stony Brook has taken to offset some of these financial challenges.

For starters, she wrote that the university has been “told to expect a 20-30% cut in state funding this year, or $25 million.” The school also had its allocation for last year retroactively cut by $19 million.

“It is unclear when, if ever, our funding will return to current levels, let alone the levels of support we ideally receive as a top research institution in the region,” she wrote in her letter.

Federal government restrictions on travel and visas, along with COVID impacts, have created a 17.5 percent drop in out-of-state and international students, which not only reduces diversity but also creates a $20 million drop in revenue.

The number of campus residents will also decline by 40% for next semester, from 10,000 to 6,000, creating an estimated $38.9 million revenue loss.

The bottom line, she explained, is that the $109.6 million deficit on the academic and research side. This she predicts, could become significantly worse.

The measures the university has taken offset some of that decline, saving the school an estimated $55 million, but the measures still do not close the budget gap and are not sustainable.

A hiring freeze for new positions and for those that become open from staff and faculty attrition will save $20 million.

Student housing refinancing will save $31.1 million in fiscal year 2021.

An ongoing freeze on expenses covering costs for service contracts, supplies and equipment and travel will save about $2.3 million

A cut to the athletic budget will save $2 million.

Senior campus leadership, meanwhile, has voluntarily taken a 10% pay cut along with a permanent hold back of any 2% raise for all Management Confidential employees.

At the same time, the university faces longer-term financial challenges.

State support has declined since 2008, from $190.4 million to $147.7 million last year. That will be even lower this year. On a per-student basis, state support in 2020 was $6,995, compared with $9,570.

This year’s expected increase in tuition and the Academic Excellence fee have not been approved by the SUNY Board.

The multi-year contracts that govern faculty and staff pay have not been fully funded, McInnis wrote in her president’s message. That has created an additional cost of $10 million for the 2020 fiscal year. Over the next five years, that compounds to $54 million.

The rainy day fund is picking up $9.7 million of that scheduled contractual salary increase raise.

The Tuition Assistance Program has been set at 2010 tuition levels, which creates a $9 million financial gap in fiscal year 2020. That is expected to rise in 2021. Stony Brook also recently learned, according to McInnis’s letter, that TAP will be funded at 80 percent of what the school awards to New York State students who rely on the program to access higher education.

At the same time, the Excelsior Program, which began in the fall of 2017 and allows students from families making up to $125,000 to attend school tuition free, may not accept new students this year.

McInnis concluded with her hope that the university will come together in the same way it did during the worst of the pandemic in New York to address these financial challenges.

“I fully recognize that you are operating in one of the most difficult environments any of us has experienced,” she wrote. “And, we are going to have to bring the same level of collaboration and innovation that you brought at the height of the COVID-19 response to our systemic budget challenges.”

McInnis urged the staff to “work together, share the best ideas, challenge assumptions, and build on the excellence of Stony Brook University in order to continue to move this great institution forward.”

Rocky Point Superintendent Scott O'Brien. File photo from Scott O'Brien

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Monday, Aug. 10 in a release that 107 school districts have not yet submitted their reopening plans to the state and have a Friday deadline to submit or face no in-person learning this fall. However, local districts claim they had already filed their plans and that the state had confirmed receipt.

The governor’s release stated that multiple school districts, including Rocky Point, Mount Sinai, Comsewogue, Longwood and Middle Country had not sent their reopening plans yet. This is despite these districts having already presented plans on their websites for residents to peruse. 

Rocky Point Superintendent Scott O’Brien said in a letter to parents that the district had indeed submitted its plan before the original deadline of July 31, and the state had confirmed receipt.

“We have contacted the New York State Department of Education regarding this matter and are working to ensure our district’s plans are in good standing, as was previously indicated, and that Rocky Point UFSD is removed from the list,” O’Brien said in the letter.

Comsewogue had already put its reopening information on its website before the July 31 deadline. In a letter to parents, Superintendent Jennifer Quinn confirmed they already had an email in-hand confirming the state received their plan. Quinn also said they asked that the state remove them from the list of 107 schools.

“We have contacted the New York State Education Department regarding this matter and resubmitted our district’s plans along with the original submission receipt,” the Comsewogue superintendent said.

In a statement, Senior Advisor to the Governor Rich Azzopardi said districts had not sent plans to the state Department of Health.

“The list of districts that didn’t file a plan with the state Department of Health is accurate,” Azzopardi said. “Despite clear guidance provided to these schools, which included a link to the DOH portal, some districts in follow-up calls said they filed with the State Education Department — which is not an executive agency — but didn’t file with DOH. Others filled out an affirmation certifying that they would be abiding by the state’s reopening guidance, but didn’t actually submit their plan, something many of these districts are now rectifying.”

Yet other district officials said it was still the state’s mistake. Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said in an email that “the Department of Health made the error. We confirmed.”

“Like Rocky Point we received an email from the New York State Department Of Education confirming our submission on July 31,” Brosdal added. “This error unnecessarily upset the community. I immediately received concerned phone calls.”

As of Monday evening, New York State has not updated the list on its website.

Cuomo again restated that reopening plans depend on the willingness of both parents and teachers in communication with schools.

“The main arbiter here of whether a school district has an intelligent plan to reopen and whether people have confidence in that district’s plan — It’s going to be the parents and it’s going to be the teachers, and that requires discussion, and that’s going to be a dialogue,” the governor said in the release.

This comes amongst a host of questions that residents have flooded their districts about reopening plans. Parents in Rocky Point have started a Change.org petition for Rocky Point to create a distance learning option for parents who do not want their children in school. 

On Mount Sinai’s website, the district has released a short Q&A with Brosdal which said the school’s board of education “has agreed to provide remote learning to those parents who are reluctant to send their children to school at this time.” The district is asking all parents to submit to the district whether their child will be attending in September. The district will be putting up a new Q&A every week, according to its website.

“Parents should be aware that if they choose to opt-out their child from attending in September, the window for returning to school would open in January, the beginning of the second semester,” the superintendent said in the Q&A. “Although remote instruction will be provided, we still believe that nothing replaces in person instruction and interaction with a teacher.”

 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) addressed those gathered about his goals for the 2019 Legislative session. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said the morning of Aug. 7 that all regions in New York are given the green light to reopen in the fall.

The governor said he based the decision off of the infection rate in each region in the state. Much of New York has been hovering around a 1 percent infection rate for the past several weeks. 

Cuomo previously said if the infection rate in any region breaches 5 percent the state would immediately order schools’ closure.

“You look at the infection rate — we are probably in the best situation in the country,” Cuomo said during a media call Friday. 

Most school districts submitted reopening plans by the deadline of July 31. Some, like South Huntington and Northport-East Northport, submitted their plans after being granted an extension. Many have come forward with hybrid plans at at least some grade levels, meaning students will spend a few days in school and then the rest of the week learning from home. Some parents have criticized districts like Three Village for deciding on a full-time schedule for all grade levels. Other parents in districts like Smithtown have rallied for children to be back in school full time.

Still, Cuomo has said multiple times that each school district’s reopening plan is dependent on the district officials in communion with parents and teachers, saying “this is not a bureaucratic decision, this is a parental decision.” 

However, there were still many questions left open over what policies districts can hold, especially regarding the safety of teachers. Yesterday, Aug. 6, teachers union New York State United Teachers put out a news release calling for any school to close if any one individual in a school that tests positive should mean an immediate 14-day closure. The release also requested specific answers to how districts should conduct quarantining of potential cases and contact tracing.

The governor largely left the questions of those two elements up to individual school districts, though state Department of Health guidelines do mandate school districts conduct testing of symptomatic students. They also mandate people to wear masks when they are unable to socially distance at six feet, and if a student does not have a mask, the district is mandated to provide one.

“I can’t fashion a plan that would work in every school district because the circumstances are too different,” he said during the media call.“

Though school districts are mandated to take the temperature of every student that comes through its doors, the fear of asymptomatic spread, of the virus infecting people from carriers, is still a big concern. Cuomo called that a continuing “conversation.”

The tenor of the governor’s announcement revolved around the notion that parents, teachers and districts all had to agree to the plans. The next few weeks, Cuomo said, should be spent in even more discussion amongst the community to try and reach more common ground.

“I believe in New Yorkers, and New Yorkers will do it and they can decide how they will do it,” he said.

 

Danford’s was cited for violations by the New York State Liquor Authority July 4. Meanwhile, bars say current restrictions could suck any business they could have during reopening. Photo by Kyle Barr

Over the past weekend, 84 restaurants and bars in downstate New York were cited with violations to COVID-19 guidelines by the State Liquor Authority. A total of 10 establishments on western Long Island and New York City had liquor licenses removed. 

Bench Warmers Tavern & Grill in Mount Sinai has an outdoor deck, to the left of the artwork, built specifically to help comply with state orders. Owner of the sports bar Jim Dunn said nobody uses it because of the heat. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though Monday Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said Long Island and New York City are stepping up their enforcement, it’s a new point in the continuing contention between bars and New York State over social distancing restrictions. While other states across the country see record spikes,the governor has mentioned the possibility of scaling back reopening of bars and pubs, though owners say that would kill their businesses.

Documents released by the state reveal 16 of the 443 establishments which were cited for distancing violations from March to July 22 were in Suffolk County, though none were issued in this most recent round of investigations. Among those on the North Shore, only Danfords Hotel &, Marina in Port Jefferson and Pancho Villa’s in Huntington have previously been cited. This was out of 1,080 SLA investigations in New York, according to a release from the governor’s office. That office has not responded to requests for comment about the specifics of those citations, or about where the 84 new violations have come from this past weekend’s efforts.

“We are very proud of what New Yorkers did to flatten the curve of the virus, but we have to protect our progress because no one wants to do that again,” Cuomo said in a release July 24.

On Monday, the governor said there had been no summonses on businesses failing to follow coronavirus guidelines.

Earlier in July, Cuomo announced a so-called “Three Strikes and You’re Closed” initiative that means any business that receives three violations or shows an egregious disregard for the guidelines could be closed or have its license revoked. This weekend’s investigations of these establishments showed people not social distancing or wearing masks in a kind of “party-like” atmosphere, according to the governor’s office. During the pandemic, 40 establishments have had their liquor licenses revoked in total, as of July 27. Cuomo cited young people as the main reason these bars are packed and not conforming to distancing guidelines. 

“That’s not unique to New York — it’s a national problem — and even the president of the United States said young people shouldn’t go into packed bars,” Cuomo said.

Danfords was cited on the Fourth of July for failing to conform to distancing guidelines. A representative of The Crest Group, which owns Danfords, did not respond to requests for comment.

Pancho Villa’s was cited June 26. Restaurant owners could not be reached for comment.

The governor indicated last week that if we see more failure to social distance in bars, the state may roll back reopening regarding these establishments. 

It’s a hard line to follow, especially as New York hovers over a 1 percent regional infection rate. If that number increases past 5 percent, schools will not be able to reopen in the fall. Above 9 percent, the governor will start to roll back on the reopening process that counties across the state managed to make over the past two months.

But for bars and other restaurants that sell alcohol, it’s a roller coaster bringing them undue anxiety, even as they try to make guidelines.

Mount Sinai’s Bench Warmers Tavern & Grill co-owner Jim Dunn said it’s been tough to follow what has been, from the ground level, seemingly haphazard orders from New York State. Business has been hard, he said, even after reopening. He’s gone from 10 tables in the dining area to four and from 12 barstools to six along the bar with only three bar tables. He built a deck patio that now has five tables on it, but with the recent heat wave, very few customers have dared sit outside and eat.

Though he said he’s been doing everything to comply with state regulations, the constant changes have been disruptive. The worst order for his restaurant, he said, has been the requirement that people must order food if they are to order drinks. 

“A guy who’s a contractor can’t just come in and have a beer after work, because he has to have a beer with dinner,” Dunn said. “They’re trying to put the restaurant business out of business — every week there’s a different thing with this governor.”