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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

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.

The Miller Place Inn has temporarily closed to weddings after receiving a call from the NYSLA. Photo from the Miller Place Inn

By Julianne Mosher and Kyle Barr

The well-known wedding and event venue Miller Place Inn has been issued a hefty fine for hosting an event that led to around 270 individuals having to quarantine across Long Island.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said Oct. 13 a notorious Sweet 16 party was hosted at the venue Sept. 25. The event involved 81 people, including 49 students and 32 adults, which is over the state-mandated limit. That party has now led to 334 people having been notified by the Suffolk County Department of Health for contact tracing. Of that number, 183 of those people were affiliated with schools, while 151 were non-school specific. The county executive said the people affected were spread throughout the county.

“It was the first time the health department has taken a course of action against a business.”

— Steve Bellone

The county DHS has identified 37 positive cases in connection to the Sweet 16 party, of which 29 of the positive cases were those who attended, seven were household contacts, and one case was a close contact of an individual who attended.

State law restricts all non essential gatherings to 50 or fewer people or 50 percent capacity, whichever one of those is less. 

“It was the first time the health department has taken a course of action against a business,” Bellone said on a conference call with reporters, citing that businesses before have largely complied with COVID restrictions when confronted by officials. The Inn has received previous warnings, he said.

The Inn was fined $10,000 for violations of the New York state executive orders, as well as $2,000 for violations of the Suffolk County sanitary code. The county exec said the determination that the Inn was at fault based on the “comprehensive contact tracing investigation.” Though he noted not everyone at the party was wearing masks, the primary violation was breaking the mass gathering rules.

Christopher Regina, a co-owner of the Inn, said in a phone interview after Bellone’s announcement that they were made aware Oct. 8 they were in violation of the guidelines. They thought they were allowed to operate at 50% of their fire marshal cap of 250 persons. He said, along with implementing air filtration measures, they were “operating safely” with less than 125.

“At no time before that did we know we were operating in the wrong,” he said.

On Friday, Oct. 9, the Inn announced it would be closing down after what they said was a warning call from the New York State Liquor Authority over reported COVID violations. Miller Place Inn owners Donna Regina, during an interview Friday, expressed that she was aware of “a group of teens [who] tested positive somewhere.”

“At no time before that did we know we were operating in the wrong.”

— Christopher Regina

The event has become notorious in the past few weeks, as the Sweet 16 was reported to have directly led to the Sachem school district having to temporarily shut down the high school.

Though the county executive said there is no dictionary definition for a so-called superspreader event, “Based on our experience in dealing with this pandemic for seven months now, this is a superspreader event without question.”

On Friday, a spokesperson from the New York State Liquor Authority told TBR News Media they had issued a warning to the Inn about complaints. A spokesperson for the SLA did not immediately respond to a request for comment over if they will take any action against the venue.

Bellone said that people need to be mindful of the consequences of mass gatherings so no more clusters pop up. 

“We need to make sure as we move into the colder weather, as we move towards winter, that we cannot have these types of activities that could cause a superspreader event like this,” he said. “We are entering a period of time where it is dangerous. We know as people move indoors they shut the windows, shut the doors and when inside that’s the real possibility for a second wave of cases happening.”

 

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

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) announced this week that the county will have no choice but to make catastrophic budget cuts to contract agencies that receive county funding if federal funds don’t come in.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, along with other members of health and social services, were adamant about the need for more federal funds. Photo by Julianne Mosher

In a press conference at the Hauppauge-based Diagnostic, Assessment, and Stabilization Hub Wednesday, Sept. 30, Bellone said services like DASH, which offers drug and family emergency care, could face serious consequences if the federal government doesn’t get involved.

The conference was one in a series of pleas to top federal representatives to send aid to local governments as the impending budget crunch draws near.

“We’re still grappling with the virus’ impacts and aftermath within our community,” he said. “There’s too much riding on this for Washington to not get involved.”

Through federal inaction, Suffolk County will be forced to slash funding at unprecedented levels for agencies that provide services for the most vulnerable, according to Bellone. Along with the county executive, heads of several organizations stood by, explaining how the federal cuts could affect the help they provide to the community.

Healthcare and mental health services, addiction and domestic violence help and even safe childcare are in need of funding to keep going.

“Not-for-profits are the fabrics of our community,” Karen Boorshtein, president and CEO of the Family Service League, said. “Without them, everyone is going to suffer.”

Paule Pachter, CEO Long Island Cares, said that his organization, which brings resources to help feed the hungry on Long Island, has seen huge increases in people waiting in line for food.

“Priorities in the USA are completely unacceptable,” he said. “110,000 [hungry] people, an additional 50,000, will become part of the lasting effects if Washington doesn’t take this seriously.”

Representatives from the Child Care Council of Suffolk, the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and L.I. Against Domestic Violence all said they’ve experienced drastic increases in service inquiries during the pandemic.

Colleen Merlo, executive director of LIADV, said the road to recovery for survivors of domestic violence will be painful and slow, especially without federal aid.

“We’ve been up 31% in calls,” she said. “Counseling services have doubled.”

Executive director of LICADD, Steve Chassman, said because of the COVID-19 crisis, addiction numbers have skyrocketed.

“We have propelled to where we were 6 months ago,” he said.

Bellone made a direct appeal to President Trump requesting that he call upon U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pass a federal disaster assistance bill in the U.S. Senate to prevent these potential devastating cuts.

He said he’s been working alongside counties throughout the state who all agree help is needed.

“This isn’t partisan, and it shouldn’t be,” he said. “Politics has no place there.”

Earlier this year, Bellone created a COVID-19 Fiscal Impact Task Force to conduct an independent review of the county’s multi-year plan and the true impact to the pandemic. The report found that Suffolk County could face a cumulative budget shortfall of up to $1.5 billion over the next three years because of the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Bellone said the county will need nearly $400 million in federal relief this year to avoid these “devasting” cuts that “should not happen.”

“We’ve seen incredible strength and compassion, while also dealing with pain and trauma,” he said. “We’ve been up and down the mountain, we’ve flattened the curve, and we’ve done that by coming together, supporting each other, and that’s what we have to do if we’re going to recover.”

Rocky Point VFW during a 2019 Veterans Day Event. The Rocky Point VFW has donated to the Joseph P. Dwyer project, but that same initiative may be losing funds without federal aid. Photo by Kyle Barr

County officials said the Joseph P. Dwyer program, which provides veterans with peer to peer counseling for post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, is under financial pressure amid the economic collapse caused by the pandemic.

Though at the same time, a local congressman who helped start the program has questioned whether the program could truly be defunded, even as local officials are facing a grim financial outlook.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin said there is not much risk of the Dwyer program being defunded any time soon. File photo by Kevin Redding

A loss of the Dwyer program is especially problematic this year, as the need for these services on Long Island has more than doubled in the last six months, according to Marcelle Leis, program director of the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) led a group of people focused on veterans affairs in the county, which has the largest population of veterans in the state, to ask for federal disaster relief.

The Dwyer program is “at risk because of tough budgets in the state,” Bellone said on a conference call with reporters. It is “critical that the federal government provide disaster aid to state and local governments so we can continue to function and provide critical services during the pandemic.”

Veterans commit about 20 suicides per day, which is a “national shame,” Bellone said. The county executive cited a recent report in Newsday that estimates that veteran suicides are up by 20 percent since the pandemic began.

“All of the challenges people have faced” have been exacerbated by the “unprecedented natural disaster that we are all living through,” Bellone added.

Domestic violence, mental health and addiction issues have all become more prevalent amid the threat to public health and the economic uncertainty caused by COVID-19, officials said.

Thomas Ronayne, Director of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency, said resources for veterans in Suffolk County were “stretched to near the breaking point.”

Ronayne suggested the virus that has changed the world during this challenging year has been no less an enemy than any combatant veterans faced on a battle field, in a jungle or in a desert city.

Veterans have struggled with the isolation created by calls for them to avoid social interactions, when agencies like Ronayne’s would normally encourage them to socialize and interact with the community and their peers.

Indeed, Joe Cognitore, Commander of the Rocky Point VFW Post 6249, who received the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge for his service during Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, said he has typically felt relief going out and feels much more pent up by being indoors.

“Staying in and [staring at] the four walls of your home takes a toll on you,” Cognitore said.

Cognitore said the Rocky Point VFW recently donated $2,500 to the Dwyer Program.

Leis said the Dwyer Program receives $185,000 in Suffolk County each year in state funding. Cutting or eliminating that funding would reduce the services veterans can access.

“We do save lives,” Leis said. “We cannot do it alone.”

Ronayne said veterans can reach out to the Agency by calling (631) 853-8387, adding that they are always available to support veterans, but that people who need help immediately should call 911.

Bellone said U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) has a “close, working relationship with the president and the White House,” Bellone said. “That’s a critical thing. We need the president to weigh in with [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).] We need all parties to come to an agreement on disaster aid.”

Zeldin was a state senator when the Dwyer Program started and said in a phone interview Tuesday that he has continued to provide support.

While Zeldin has spoken with President Donald Trump (R) this Sunday by phone about the need for funding for Suffolk County, he has not heard about any imminent threat to state-sponsored support for a program he helped create.

The Dwyer Program is funded through the end of the first quarter of 2021, Zeldin said, adding he wasn’t aware of anyone inside the state executive or legislative branch who is planning to cut funding for this program.

Zeldin doesn’t anticipate that this particular program will be cut at the state level either.

County Executive Steve Bellone said there could be massive cuts to Suffolk bus routes if they receive no financial aid soon. Photo by Kyle Barr

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) has continued his calls for additional federal funds, now saying bus routes and bus drivers’ positions could be eliminated in the planned county budget to be released within the next week, officials said. 

Click the image to see which routes could be cut in your area.

Bellone held a press conference Friday, Sept. 25, saying that cutting 19 bus routes and 25% of paratransit bus availability would result in about $18 million in savings for the county’s 2021 budget. The non paratransit routes, officials said, are equivalent to 2,500 riders a day, according to the pre-pandemic ridership levels. Cuts would impact about 200 daily riders who use the Suffolk County Accessible Transit service, and could also potentially eliminate hundreds of workers’ positions.

The routes themselves are spread out throughout the county, and though officials said those chosen would be busses with overall less ridership, they represent some of the only public transportation for certain areas. The S62, which runs across the North Shore from Riverhead to Hauppauge and is the only bus for places like Shoreham, Rocky Point and Miller Place, would be axed under current plans. The S54, which connects the Patchogue railroad to the Walt Whitman Mall is also in the crosshairs. Together, those routes contain the highest ridership and represent 887 daily riders, according to the county. 

All Planned Route Cuts

  • S54 – 548 riders per day
  • 10B – 45 riders per day
  • S59 – 90 riders per day
  • S57 – 139 riders per day
  • S31 – 12 riders per day
  • S76 – 36 riders per day
  • S56 – 89 riders per day
  • 2A – 106 riders per day
  • 7A – 60 riders per day
  • 10C – 85 riders per day
  • 6B – 108 riders per day
  • S47 – 73 riders per day
  • 8A – 131 riders per day
  • S62 – 339 riders per day
  • 1A – 63 riders per day
  • 6A – 78 riders per day
  • S69 – 3 riders per day
  • 2B – 161 riders per day
  • S23 – 149 riders per day

Other nixed routes include the S76, which connects Stony Brook and Port Jefferson Village and has an estimated 36 daily riders, may also get cut. The S56, which runs in Smithtown from Commack to Lake Grove with around 89 daily riders, could be eliminated as well.

This is all part of an anticipated 2021 county budget that Bellone said will include cuts across the board.

“Washington has failed to act,” Bellone said. “We need Washington to do its job, to do what it’s always done in times of crisis when local communities are hit by unprecedented natural disasters that are beyond the scope and capability of local government can handle.”

The cuts to personnel could be especially devastating, he said, considering many were “essential workers” who did their jobs even during the worst of the pandemic on Long Island. Many hospital and other frontline workers take the bus to work as well.

These planned cuts are despite receiving close to $26.6 million earlier this year in federal aid specifically for public transportation services. Bellone said the money has already been spent or allocated for the current year.

The total operating cost of Suffolk Transit is over $85 million, with more than $43 million being funded by the county, around $29 million from New York State, more than $4.4 million from the federal government, and $8.2 million in fares. Suffolk County estimates it will lose $6.1 million in farebox revenue in 2020, alongside a 20% or $6 million cut in state funding. Bellone’s office reported that the $26 million in federal funds allowed the county to operate the buses as normal during the height of the pandemic. 

John Corrado, the president of Suffolk Transportation Services, a private company which operates all the buses used by Suffolk County, said they lost about 40% of ridership during the pandemic, and though numbers are coming back there is no way it can stave off the massive loss in farebox revenue.

In a repeat of last week’s press conference where Bellone announced major cuts to Suffolk County Police, Republicans in the county legislature held a retaliatory press conference of their own that same day. Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a member of the legislature’s Public Works, Transportation and Energy Committee, claimed the county is only down $4 million in bus fees. The GOP members of the legislature have constantly attacked Bellone on its financial situation, with officials often citing a 2019 report from the state comptroller calling Suffolk the most fiscally stressed municipality in the state.

Legislator Rob Trotta joined fellow Republicans in denouncing Bellone’s planned bus cuts. Photo by Kyle Barr

“To blame the federal government is a cop out,” Trotta said. 

Though that aid that Suffolk received this year must be put towards current budget impacts due to the pandemic, Trotta said the numbers Bellone cited were off, and that the $26 million federal funds could be used now and all the savings could be rolled over into next year.

Though one will have to wait until the final 2021 budget is released before making any claims of what should or should not be cut, Republicans have claimed both this and other cuts to major services are unnecessary considering the CARES Act funding the county has already received to the tune of $257 million, not counting the additional public transit funds. This, they argued, should be enough to cover COVID-related expenses. Republicans said that new money is being used to pay for past financial mismanagement by the county executive. 

Though when asked what else could be cut instead of these services, Republican legislators said they would need to see the full budget before making that determination. 

Though some legislators admitted there is need for further federal aid, Legislator Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville) suggested the federal government put a watchdog on the county executive to make sure the funds are spent correctly.

In response to the accusation the cuts are not needed, Bellone said since the county pays more than $40 million for the bus system, and though the federal funds have helped, they does not cover what will be a massive $800 million deficit for this year going into next year.

The planned cuts to public transportation would also impact the Suffolk County Accessible Transit buses, otherwise known as SCAT, which hundreds of residents with disabilities rely upon for service in doing things as simple as going to physical therapy or shopping for food. The service allows residents to schedule being picked up and dropped off, and represents one of the few tangible means for those lacking mobility and without personal transport for getting around.

Frank Krotschinsky, the director of the Office for People with Disabilities under the county executive, said “the county has gone above and beyond” in the offerings it has for disabled transport. He added the questions his office most commonly receives are from people asking about transportation.

“The day these cuts are made, people with disabilities will be disproportionately affected,” he said. “We need the federal government to step up to its role.”

The same day as the press conference, Bellone hosted a call with the county executives of Onondaga and Orange upstate counties, both of whom are Republican, in emphasizing the bipartisan need for additional relief from the federal government. 

“As we put forward this budget, there is not going to be a part of this budget that involves discretionary spending that will not be impacted by Washington’s failure to act here,” Bellone said.

 

Suffolk Republicans Put Onus on County Exec over Police Cuts

Steve Bellone, along with Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Police Chief Stu Cameron, said Sept. 18 that without federal funds, they would need to cut the next police academy class entirely. Photo by Kyle Barr

*Update* This story has been updated to include a response from county Republicans.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said Friday that this year’s budget will cut about $20 million from police spending, which includes the loss of an entire police recruitment class of about 200 officers. 

Legislator Rob Trotta, a retired Suffolk County Police detective, claimed the police budget should be relatively stable due to its independent line on resident’s tax bills. Photo by Kyle Barr

During a press conference held at the Police Academy located on the Suffolk County Community College Brentwood campus, Bellone reiterated his plea for the federal government to pass additional aid for local governments. The cut to the police class is expected to save approximately $1.5 million and will shutter the academy for what amounts to a year and a half. 

“Six months into this pandemic, the federal has failed to deliver disaster assistance to state and local governments,” Bellone said. “My message to Washington is simple: ‘Don’t defund the police — don’t defund suburbia by your inaction.’”

The county executive used language very reminiscent of President Donald Trump (R), who has previously asserted that if Democrats win in November they will “destroy the beautiful suburbs.” While Bellone indicated he does not agree with the defund-the-police movement — which aims to take funds away from traditional law enforcement and put them toward other social services or create new, nonpolice response units — he said that is “essentially what the federal government is doing” by not passing any new aid bills.

Bellone added the county budget, which is expected to be revealed in the next two weeks, will also include cuts to the student resource officer program that has trained cops for work in schools. Those officers will be reassigned. 

Additional cuts include the community support unit, suspending promotions, and cuts in county aid to independent East End police departments. These cuts, and potential further cuts hinted in the upcoming budget, could mean less officers and patrols on county streets, according to the county exec, though by how much he did not say.

Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said during the press conference that the loss of the SROs and other specialized officers would be a great loss to the public. 

“They are instrumental in intervening, intervening and addressing gang violence, opioid addiction and active shooter threats, while serving as a visual deterrent to illegal and dangerous activity,” she said. 

Though Suffolk County received $257 million in CARES Act funding back in April, which Bellone said is used as part of the response to the pandemic, a financial report issued by Suffolk earlier this year estimated the county could be as much as $1.5 billion in the hole over the next three years. 

In response to Bellone’s thrust that the federal government has not given enough, Republicans from the county Legislature stood in front of the Police Academy Sept. 22, instead claiming Bellone has not been transparent on Suffolk County finances.

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), along with other Republican legislators, swore there was a way to keep the trainee cops program rolling, insisting that police are funded by a separate line on people’s taxes, and that unspent CARES Act funds can help cover the cost.

“What it’s like is a guy who has a credit card and he’s maxed out and he owes millions of dollars, then all of a sudden the coronavirus happens, and what does he do?” Trotta said. “He pays a little bit off and now he wants more money to make up for what he did before anybody heard about this.” 

Legislator Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters), a member of the Budget & Finance Committee, said he and other legislators have asked the exec’s office to make a presentation to them about the county’s financial state but a person from Bellone’s office never showed.

Trotta insisted the county has only spent a relatively small amount of the funding it received from the federal government, and that the money should go to pay law enforcement payroll. Suffolk County has previously reported most of that money has already been allocated or spent. When asked where Republicans are getting their data, Flotteron said he and others have seen it in reports from places like the county comptroller’s office, but could not point to anything specific.

Republicans have consistently gone after Bellone on county finances, making it a cornerstone of then-candidate and current Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy Jr.’s (R) run against the Democratic incumbent in 2019. Their assertion now is that Suffolk had long been in financial trouble even before the pandemic hit, citing the county’s Wall Street bond rating downgrades over the past several years. New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (D) called Suffolk, with Nassau, the most fiscally stressed counties in the state last year. 

Other Long Island municipalities have also begged the federal government to send aid. On Sept. 14, federal reps from both parties stood beside several town supervisors to call for a bipartisan municipal aid bill. The Town of Brookhaven, for example, is requesting close to $12 million, as it had not been an original recipient of the original CARES Act funding.

At that press conference, Kennedy said the county is financially “on the verge of utter collapse.”

Suffolk, Bellone said, would need a $400 million windfall to stave off these massive cuts, and potentially up to $650 million to aid with economic hardship next year. 

“We have seen death and devastation … and we are moving forward, but we know we face years of recovery.” he said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. File photo by Alex Petroski

A Confederate flag displayed on the side of a Brookhaven Fire Department truck has caused outcry from multiple levels of government and many in the surrounding community.

This photo has gone viral on social media showing a Brookhaven Fire Department ladder truck sporting the Confederate battle flag.

A picture of the Confederate battle standard draped on the side of a ladder truck from the Brookhaven hamlet, showed up on social media where it went viral Sunday, Aug. 30. Many who saw it complained that it was a display of racism, especially in light of recent national dialogue about its use by white supremacists and the history of the Confederacy’s promotion of slavery.

In a statement, Brookhaven FD Chief of Department Peter Di Pinto said that the action was not authorized by the department and was done without its knowledge. The statement says the incident involved one firefighter acting alone during a non-response event. Di Pinto said the matter is currently under investigation, and therefore couldn’t release any further details.

“We can assure our community that ‘Racism has no home in our firehouse,’” the statement read.

That event was reportedly a fire truck parade in Patchogue to support a firefighter with cancer. Other department vehicles were present at the event though none other than the Brookhaven truck reportedly appeared with the Confederate flag.

While the The Town of Brookhaven and the Brookhaven Fire Department are separate entities, the town was also quick to condemn the flag.

“The Town Board condemns the display of this symbol of racism and hatred in the strongest possible terms and is calling for this fire department to launch an investigation into this matter and take immediate and serious action in response,” the town said in a statement. “Brookhaven town has been built upon a history of inclusion and diversity. Our cemeteries contain the graves of men who gave their lives fighting against this flag. This flag is a symbol of hatred, and there is no place for it, or the racism it displays, in our town.”

While on Facebook County Executive Steve Bellone (D) thanked the fire department for looking into the matter, he said that he was calling on the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission and New York State Division of Human Rights to also investigate the incident.

“The public also must have confidence that any review of this matter is handled independently to ensure a fair and impartial outcome,” Bellone said in a statement. “Hate and bigotry have no place in Suffolk County and we must demonstrate that we take these matters seriously.”

Stony Brook University's COVID-19 testing site. Photo by Matthew Niegocki

As part of an awareness campaign, Suffolk County is trying to provide residents with updated information on testing locations, including sites in pharmacies that are free of charge. 

Suffolk officials said this was in response to U.S. Centers for Disease Control Guidelines which were inexplicably changed Aug. 25 to say that individuals do not necessarily need to get tested for COVID-19 after coming in contact with someone who has tested positive. New York State officials have also spoken out against the change, arguing it flies in the face of what we currently understand about COVID-19.

Such sites are listed below:

Town of Brookhaven and East End

  • CVS Pharmacy, 6221 Route 25A, Wading River, NY 11792
  • CVS Pharmacy, 496 County Road 111 Building C, Manorville, NY 11949
  • Rite Aid, 803 Montauk Hwy Unit D, Shirley, NY
  • CVS Pharmacy, 29 Havenwood Drive, Shirley NY 11967
  • Walgreens, 1580 Route 112, Medford, NY 11763
  • CVS Pharmacy, 470 West Main Street, Patchogue, NY 11772
  • CVS Pharmacy, 1710 Route 112, Coram, NY 11727
  • CVS Pharmacy, 2315 Middle Country Road, Centereach, NY 11720
  • Rite Aid, 229 Independence Plaza, Selden, NY
  • CVS Pharmacy, 729 Portion Road, Ronkonkoma, NY 11779
  • Stony Brook Drive Through Testing Site, 100 Nicolls Rd, Stony Brook, NY 11794

Town of Smithtown

  • CVS Pharmacy, 977 Jericho Turnpike, Smithtown, NY 11725
  • CVS Pharmacy, 111 Terry Road, Smithtown, NY 11787

Town of Huntington and Western Suffolk

  • CVS Pharmacy, 520 Larkfield Road, East Northport, NY 11731
  • CVS Pharmacy, 2000 Jericho Turnpike, East Northport, NY 11731
  • CVS Pharmacy, 111 Depot Road, Huntington Station, NY 11746
  • CVS Pharmacy, 107 South Country Road, Bellport, NY 11713
  • CVS Pharmacy, 450 Main Street, Farmingdale, NY 11735
  • CVS Pharmacy, Candlewood Road and 5th Avenue, Brentwood, NY 11717
  • CVS Pharmacy, 311 Main Street, Center Moriches, NY 11934
  • CVS Pharmacy, 831 Connetquot Avenue, Islip Terrace, NY 11752
  • CVS Pharmacy, 105 Montauk Highway, West Sayville, NY 11782

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said during a press conference Aug. 26 that New York would not adhere to the new guidance. He instead proclaimed that the CDC was following the bidding of President Donald Trump (R). He called the new health policy “political propaganda.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said in a release that the new CDC guidance is inconsistent with what has already helped stop the spread of COVID-19.

“From day one, we have prioritized access to testing, especially in our hard hit communities,” Bellone said in a release. “In light of the puzzling CDC guidance released this week, I am proud to stand with Governor Cuomo and others in the medical community to encourage our residents to continue to get tested. If we want to avoid a second wave and keep our infection rate below one percent, testing must be a top priority.”

For their part, federal health officials have told reporters the CDC’s change in testing policy was not based on politics and the change was made by CDC themselves. However, Trump has publicly said that he believed the reason the number of coronavirus cases continues to increase was because the U.S. has increased the number of tests it conducts.

Suffolk Commissioner of Health Services Dr. Gregson Pigott said testing is the best way to prevent a new wave of the virus come the end of summer.

“A robust testing program allows us to identify as many positive cases as possible, isolate those individuals and quarantine their close contacts, therefore slowing and containing the spread of COVID-19,” Pigott said in a release. “In order to protect public health and help prevent a second wave in the fall, we will continue to recommend everyone who is exposed to the virus gets tested.”

Additional testing sites can be found by typing in a zip code at https://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/find-test-site-near-you

 

Owners of Huner’s Fitness Advantage in Port Jefferson said they believe they should be considered essential for the work they do helping people remain active and healthy. Photo from Huner’s Fitness Advantage website

After doing heavy lifting to ensure customer and employee safety, gyms can begin to reopen soon.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) announced a gradual gym reopening starting this Monday, Aug. 24. This comes after earlier this week Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said gyms can start to reopen once they receive guidance from local government.

Commercial gyms, such as Planet Fitness, LA Fitness, Retro Fitness and those that require a membership fee, along with indoor classes can restart next week.

Each fitness center will have to pass a county health inspection to make sure the gyms have sufficient procedures to protect staff and customers while following state guidelines established by Cuomo.

Hotel, office, higher education and residential gyms can reopen starting the following week, on Aug. 31.

On Thursday, Aug. 20, the county will host a virtual meeting with facility owners to review guidance, answer questions and provide any clarifications.

“With our infection rate holding steady at or below 1 percent and a robust testing system in place, we are confident we can reopen gyms in a way that is both safe and responsible,” Bellone said in a statement. “I want to remind our residents and gym owners that we are still in the midst of a pandemic.”

Bellone encouraged those attending gyms to wear a mask and follow all safety procedures.

Communal showers, whirlpools, saunas and steam rooms and water fountains and self-serve bars and samples must remain closed. According to the governor’s web site, individual showers and stalls can remain open as long as they are cleaned between use.

Classes are restricted to the most restrictive guidelines, which could either be six feet of distance in all directions from a participant, a limit of 33 percent capacity and no more than 50 people.

Gym owners also must provide sanitizing stations, acceptable face coverings, which exclude bandanas, buffs and gaiters and the limitation of physical contact activities including boxing and martial arts.

During each inspection, businesses will receive a gallon of NYS Clean hand sanitizer.

According to Cuomo, local health departments are required to inspect gyms prior to reopening or within two weeks of reopening, to ensure strict adherence to the state Department of Health guidance.

Indeed, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services will begin inspections on Monday, Aug. 24 for commercial and traditional gyms.

“New Yorkers must closely adhere to the guidelines and local health departments are required to strictly enforce them to help ensure gyms and fitness center reopen safely and protect the public health,” Cuomo said in a statement.

The Suffolk County Department of Economic Development and Planning will work with the Suffolk County Department of Labor, Licensing and Consumer Affairs and the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to create an online database of gyms and fitness centers within the county.

Before an inspection, gym owners will need to complete the affirmation for each location, which owners can find at the New York Forward website forward.ny.gov, that they reviewed and understood the state guidelines and will implement these protocols.

After owners attest to their safety plans, the county will schedule inspections. Suffolk will send out an email with the date and approximate time for an inspection.

Gym owners need to post a written safety plan describing the ways they are protecting employees and gym members from COVID-19.

Cuomo also requires that gyms use a MERV-13 or greater air-handling system. If the gym can’t operate at that level, the owners need to have a heating, ventilation and air conditioning professional document their inability to use such a system and adopt additional ventilation and mitigation protocols from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Debra Bowling of Pasta Pasta talks to County Executive Steve Bellone. Photo by Kyle Barr

This past weekend, President Donald Trump (R) was in Suffolk County, raising money for this reelection. During his time on Long Island, he called requests for financial aid amid the pandemic a bailout, repeating some of the language he used two years in response to Puerto Rico’s request for financial aid after Hurricane Maria.

“I couldn’t disagree with this more,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said today on a conference call with reporters. “We need federal disaster assistance to respond to, and recover from, COVID-19.”

Bellone said the county abided by guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that it shut down its economy to protect the health of its population, lowering the death toll at the cost of the economy.

Approaching an argument the president has made against the reaction to the murder by police of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, Bellone suggested that the lack of financial support from the federal government would be a form of defunding the police, taking away salaries from public health workers and removing the financial support necessary for the safe return of students to in-person learning this fall.

“This should have nothing to do with politics,” he argued. “We are still in the middle of fighting a pandemic.”

The county executive urged the federal government to provide vital financial resources to fund these recovery efforts.

“When President Trump talks about federal disaster assistance as a bailout, this is flat out wrong,” Bellone said. The money he has requested, including during a recent trip to Washington, DC, he argued will pay for police officers. Bellone also pointed out that Long Island has provided ample financial resources to the federal government during more prosperous years through tax dollars.

By taking away state and local property tax deductions, the federal government has added billions to what Long Island sends to Washington as a region every year, Bellone said.

“The notion of a bailout suggests we did something wrong in Suffolk County,” the county executive continued. “The fact of the matter is, we all did our jobs here.”

Viral Numbers

Separately, Bellone said Suffolk County has managed to keep illnesses and deaths down in the public health battle against COVID-19.

In the last day, the number of people who have tested positive for the virus was 55 out of a total of 5,030 people who received a test. The rate of just over 1 percent is tracking with the positive tests for the last few weeks and is well below the 5 percent threshold schools have for reopening.

The number of residents who tested positive for the antibody to COVID-19 stands at 24,392.

Hospitalizations, meanwhile, continued to be well below the worst of the pandemic, when the health care system strained under the weight of sick residents.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 stands at 33, which is an increase of 2. The number of people in the Intensive Care Unit was three.

Hospital bed occupancy stood at 72 percent overall and at 67 percent in the ICU.

The number of people who have died from complications related to the virus stands at 1,998. Four people were discharged the hospital in the last day.