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Suffolk County

A sharing table at Heritage Park. Photo by Julianne Mosher

By Julianne Mosher and Rita J. Egan

Give a little, take a little — sharing is caring. 

A new phenomenon that has made its way across Long Island — and now the country — is a discreet way to help those in need. 

The Sharing Tables concept, of New York and California, was started up in November by a Seaford mom and her young daughter. 

“I woke up on Sunday, Nov. 22, and me and my 6-year-old daughter didn’t have anything to do that day,” Mary Kate Tischler, founder of the group, said. “We went through our cabinets, got some stuff from the grocery store and started publicizing the table on Facebook.”

The Sharing Table is a simple concept, according to her: “Take what you need and leave what you can, if you can.”

Tischler, who grew up in Stony Brook, said the idea is that whoever sets up a table in front of their home or business will put items out that people might need, with the community coming together to replenish it.

“The very first day people were taking things and dropping things off,” she said. “It was working just as it was supposed to.”

When the table is set up, organizers put out anything and everything a person might need. Some put out nonperishable foods, some put toiletries. Others put toys and books, with some tables having unworn clothing and shoes. No one mans the table. It’s just out front, where someone can discreetly visit and grab what they need.

“Since there’s no one that stands behind the table, people can come up anonymously and take the item without identifying themselves or asking any questions,” Tischler said. ”Some of our neighbors are in a tough time where they can’t pay their bills. I think the Sharing Tables are really helping fill those needs.”

And they’re popping up everywhere. In just three months, the group has nearly 30 Sharing Tables in New York, with one just launched in Santa Monica, California.

Mount Sinai

From clothing to toys, to food and books, Sharing Tables, like the one pictured here in Mount Sinai, are a way to help in a discreet and anonymous way. Photo by Julianne Mosher

On Sunday, Jan. 18, a Sharing Table was put outside the Heritage Trust building at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai.

Victoria Hazan, president of the trust, said she saw the Sharing Tables on social media and knew that the local community needed one, too.

“It was nothing but good, positive vibes,” she said.

When she set up the table with dozens of different items that were donated, people already started pulling up to either grab something they needed or donate to the cause.

“Some people are shy,” Hazan said. “What’s great is that you set up the table and walk away. There’s no judgement and no questions asked.”

What’s available at the tables will vary by community and what donations come in.

“The response from the community blew my mind totally,” Hazan said. “This was the right time to do this.”

St. James

Joanne Evangelist, of St. James, was the first person in Suffolk County to set up a Sharing Table, and soon after, other residents in the county followed.

The wife and mother of two said it was the end of the Christmas season when she was cleaning out drawers and her pantry. On the Facebook page Smithtown Freecycle, she posted that she had stuff to give away if anyone wanted it, but she would find sometimes people wouldn’t show up after she put something aside for them.

“So, I put it on a table outside — not even knowing about the group or thinking anything of it,” she said, adding she would post what was outside on the freecycle page.

Joanne Evangelist stands by her table in St. James filled with food, cleaning supplies and more. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Tischler saw the Smithtown Freecycle post and reached out to Evangelist to see if she would be interested in setting up a Sharing Table. The St. James woman thought it was a good idea when she heard it. While Evangelist regularly has food, toiletries, cleaning products and baby products on the table, from time to time there will be clothing, toys and other random items. Recently, she held a coat drive and the outwear was donated to Lighthouse Mission in Bellport, which helps those with food insecurities and the homeless.

She said she keeps the table outside on her front lawn all day long, even at night, unless it’s going to rain, or the temperatures dip too low. People can pick up items at any time, and she said no one is questioned.

Evangelist said she also keeps a box out for donations so she can organize them on the table later on in the day, and the response from local residents wanting to drop off items has been touching.

She said helping out others is something she always liked to do. 

“I was a candy striper in the hospital when I was younger,” she said. “I just always loved volunteering, and I’m a stay-at-home mom, so, honestly anything I could do … especially with the pandemic.”

Evangelist said she understands what people go through during tough financial times.

“I’ve used a pantry before, so I know the feeling,” she said. “I know the embarrassment of it.”

Northport

Lisa Conway, of Northport, and two of her five children, Aidan, 16, and Kate, 14, set up a Sharing Table after their garage was burglarized on New Year’s Eve.

Conway said her children, who attend St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, were looking for a community outreach project. She had seen a post about the Sharing Tables on Facebook and was considering starting one, but she was debating how involved it would be.

Then the Conway’s garage was burglarized where thousands of dollars of tools were stolen, an electric skateboard, dirt bike and more including a generator that was taken from the basement. The wife and mother said the family felt fortunate that the robbers didn’t enter the main part of the house.

Conway said after the experience she realized that some people need to steal to get what they need and decided the Sharing Table would be a good idea.

“They can come take what they need without having to steal from anyone,” she said.

Her children have been helping to organize the items they receive, and every day Aidan will set everything up before school and clean up at night. He said it’s no big deal as it takes just a few minutes each day.

Aidan said there have been more givers than takers.

“People are a lot more generous than what I expected them to be,” he said.

The mother and son said they have been touched by the generosity of their fellow residents. Conway said she’s been using the Nextdoor app mostly to generate contributions. She said she started posting on the app to let people know what they needed for the table. One day after a posting indicating they needed cleaning supplies for the table, they woke up to find the items outside.

The family has also received a $200 Amazon gift card to buy items, and another person bought them a canopy to protect the table. 

Conway said every once in a while, she will be outside when people are picking up items. One woman told her how she drove from Nassau County. Her husband was suffering from three different types of cancer, and he couldn’t work due to his compromised immune system. She told her how they had to pay the bills first, and then if there was money left over they could buy food.

Another day Conway went outside to see that someone had left gum and mints on the table.

“I just was so touched by that,” the mother said. “They wanted to leave something they didn’t just want to take, and that’s all they had.”

Conway said it’s a learning experience for her children to know that there are people on public assistance who can’t use the funds for items such as paper goods or cleaning items, and there are others who are struggling but not eligible for any kind of assistance.

“My youngest one is 9, and even he can’t believe when he sees people pulling up,” she said. “He’s not really in the helping phase but I love that he’s seeing what we’re doing.”

Aidan agreed that it is an important learning experience. He said before he wasn’t familiar with those who had financial issues.

“It’s not good to know that there are people out there with financial issues, but it’s good to know that you can help them,” he said.

Conway said the Sharing Tables came around at the right time as she was suffering from “COVID fatigue,” and it changed her outlook on life.

“I feel like my faith in humanity has been restored,” she said.

How you can help

Tischler said that if people would like to donate but cannot get to a Sharing Table, there is an Amazon wish list on the group’s Facebook page. Items ordered through the site will be delivered to Tischler’s home, where she will personally deliver to the Sharing Tables across Long Island. Addresses for locations are listed on the Facebook page.

“It’s been such a whirlwind,” she added. “I have to stop and pinch myself and take stock of what’s happening.”

Kara Hahn takes the oath of office as deputy presiding officer administered by County Clerk Judy Pascale on Jan. 4. Photos from Suffolk County Legislators

The Suffolk County Legislature has officially started its new session, with new lawmakers sworn in this week for the body’s 52nd organizational meeting Jan. 4. 

Legislator Nicholas Caracappa (R-Selden) took his ceremonial oath of office as a new lawmaker, while Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) and Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) were reelected to their leadership posts.

Calarco, legislator for the 7th District, was reelected to lead the body for a second year as presiding officer in a bipartisan vote, and Hahn, who represents the 5th District, was reelected deputy presiding officer, also in a bipartisan vote. 

Rob Calarco takes the oath of office as presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature. Photo from Suffolk County Legislature

“Important projects await us in the coming year, and we will confront the challenges of 2021 the same way we did in 2020 —in a bipartisan fashion with a shared commitment to cooperation and finding common ground,” Calarco said in a statement. 

In his remarks, he reflected on the challenges of 2020 and pointed to legislative progress on diversity and inclusion, open space and farmland preservation, and updates to the county’s wastewater code. 

In 2021, Calarco looks forward to building out sewers in Patchogue, the Mastic Peninsula, Deer Park, Smithtown and Kings Park, which will help protect Suffolk County’s water and provide an economic boost to downtowns. Additionally, he said the Legislature will soon be presented with a plan to reinvent policing in Suffolk, as required by an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

“The men and women of our law enforcement agencies work hard every day to do their jobs professionally and with a commitment to protecting all the residents of Suffolk County, yet we also know whole portions of our population fear the presence of police in their community, making officers’ jobs far more difficult,” he said. “We must put politics aside to ensure the plan addresses the root of those fears, and builds on the initiatives already underway to establish trust and confidence between our police and the communities they protect.”

Hahn intends to continue focusing on the global pandemic that has hit close to home.

“Looking ahead, 2021 will once again be a tough year, but with a vaccine there is now a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said in a statement. “We will focus our efforts on halting the spread of COVID-19, helping those in need, conquering our financial challenges and getting through this pandemic with as little heartache and pain as possible. There is hope on the horizon, and I know we will come back stronger than ever.”

After winning a special election in November, Caracappa will now represent the 4th District, filling the seat left by Republican Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) who passed suddenly in September. 

Nicholas Caracappa is sworn in as new legislator for Suffolk County’s 4th District. Photo from Suffolk County Legislature

A lifelong resident of Selden, Caracappa was a 34-year employee of the Suffolk County Water Authority. He was president of the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, Local-393 for 14 years and previously served as a member of the union’s national executive board. 

He also served as a Middle Country school district board of education trustee for seven years and volunteered at Ground Zero. He said his goal is to keep his district’s quality of life at the forefront. 

“I am committed to the quality of life issues that make this community a great place for families to live, work and enjoy recreation,” he said in a statement. “My focus will be to eliminate wasteful spending, support our law enforcement, first responders and frontline health care workers, and protect our senior citizens, veterans and youth services.”

He added that he wants to continue enhancing Long Island’s environmental protection initiatives including critical water-quality measures and expanding the existing sewer studies in his district’s downtown regions. 

The Legislature’s Hauppauge auditorium is named after his late mother, Rose Caracappa.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) was sworn in last year. Representing the 6th District, she said she looks forward to continuing and expanding on the important work she’s been doing for the community. Specifically, for 2021, her top priority is working with the health department, along with federal, state and local governments to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anker said she wants to prioritize public safety and plans to continue to work with the county’s Department of Public Works and the state’s Department of Transportation to monitor and create safer roads. 

As the chair of the county’s Health Committee and chair of the Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel, she also plans to continue to collaborate with panel members to monitor the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the opioid epidemic on Long Island.

“Together we have worked to protect the integrity of this great community by addressing issues and improving our quality of life,” Anker said. “This year, I will continue to be proactive in dealing with this current pandemic and prioritize issues including stabilizing county finances, fighting crime and the drug epidemic, addressing traffic safety and working to preserve what’s left of our precious open space.”

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker speaks during a press conference in 2017 about the creation of a permanent panel to address the ever-growing opioid crisis. File photo by Kyle Barr

Suffolk County’s 2020 annual report on the lingering opioid crisis showed an increase in the number of overdoses from the previous year, with experts expressing concern for the impact the pandemic has had on addiction rates.

The Suffolk County Heroin and Opiate Epidemic Advisory Panel released its findings Dec. 29 showing there were 345 fatal overdoses in 2020, which includes pending analysis of some drug overdose cases, according to the county medical examiner’s office. While, on its face, that number did not increase over the past year, nonfatal overdoses climbed by 90 to 1,208, com-pared to 2019, according to Suffolk County police. This increase defies a general trending de-crease in nonfatal overdoses since 2017. Police also reported 910 opioid overdose-antidote na-loxone saves for individuals compared to 863 in 2019.

In some ways more worrying than overall overdose numbers has been the treatment situation on the ground, with professionals in the field reporting an increase in relapses during the pan-demic, according to the report.

Numbers released by police after a May inquiry from TBR News Media showed overdoses were up dramatically when comparing months before the start of the shutdown orders in March to the weeks directly afterward. Medical experts and elected officials all agreed that pandemic-related anxiety, plus the economic downturn and mandated isolation led to increased drug use overall. People in the treatment industry have also said the pandemic has pushed them toward utilizing telehealth.

Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), the panel chair, said COVID-19 has led to challenges among all county governmental and community agencies, with “overwhelmed hospitals fighting on the frontline, addiction rates skyrocketing with limited resources and economic un-certainty due to business disruption.”

There have been 184 deaths related to opioids in 2020, according to the report, with 161 poten-tial drug overdoses still pending review. Among the North Shore towns, not accounting for those still in review, there were 18 deaths reported in Huntington, 13 in Smithtown and 69 in Brookhaven, the latter of which had the most opioid-related deaths of any Suffolk township. Police data also shows the 6th Precinct bore the brunt of the most overdoses and the most Narcan saves.

National data also bears a grim toll. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Pre-vention’s National Center for Health Statistics there has been a 10% increase in drug overdose deaths from March 2019 to March 2020. Approximately 19,416 died from overdoses in the U.S. in the first three months of 2020, compared to 16,682 in 2019. 

In addition to Suffolk’s report, the advisory panel has sent letters to state and federal reps ask-ing them not to cut any state funding for treatment and prevention and for the state to  sup-port provider reimbursement rates for telehealth and virtual care that are on par with face-to-face rates. They also requested that New York State waives the in-person meeting requirement for people to receive buprenorphine treatment, which can help aid in addiction to painkillers.

County legislators are also touting a new youth addiction panel, which is set to begin meeting in the new year. The county is also continuing its lawsuits against several pharmaceutical com-panies for their hand in starting the opioid epidemic. 

That’s not to say there haven’t been other setbacks in Suffolk’s efforts against opioids. Last Oc-tober, county Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) was arrested for an alleged at-tempt to trade oxycodone for sex. Spencer was the one to initiate the creation of the youth panel. He has pleaded not guilty, though he has stepped down from his position on the panel, among other responsibilities.

There are currently 29 members on the opioid advisory panel, including representatives from the county Legislature, law enforcement, first responders, treatment centers and shelters.

While Anker thanked current members of the panel for their continued efforts, she said more work is needed.

“The opioid epidemic is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed continuously from all fronts,” she said.

The Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County Sheriff Department honored frontline workers, including the town’s Health and Human Services Department and its contracted food workers from Florian Foods. Photo from TOB

It would be impossible to commemorate every government worker in a single article, but the massive number of people busting their back in the midst of the pandemic helped an immeasurable number of residents when the worst was underway, whether they were custodial staff cleaning buildings for people to work in, or post office workers delivering mail, there are innumerable people the community owes their thanks to. 

In this case, it was a collective of government workers from the federal government on down whose job it was to keep those of us in pandemic hot zones up to date. For that, local municipalities depended on small communication offices to relay the most up-to-date and accurate information to both government and citizens, while residents were aided by public safety and food programs for homebound seniors. 

Communications

In any battle or crisis, those on the ground will tell you what helps most is having the latest information possible.

Lisa Santeramo, assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs under Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), was at the lead in getting the information from New York State on down to the local governments on Long Island. Her office included Theresa Santoro, a Miller Place native who was in charge of reaching out to Suffolk, and Andrew Mulvey, who was in charge of Nassau.

Lisa Santeramo, assistant secretary for the state intergovernmental affairs office, worked alongside Theresa Santoro and Andrew Mulvey to get up-to-date info about the pandemic out to local municipalities. Photo from Santeramo

Santeramo was just coming back from maternity leave at the end of March but suddenly, as infections grew and places started to shut down, the small intergovernmental office was a focal point for every county, town, village, as well as the dozens of civic and chamber of commerce organizations for learning about new regulations, protocols, closings and reopenings. For months, Santeramo said her office was performing multiple daily calls with different groups from town supervisors to village leadership. They were also sending out constant email updates to inform what changes were happening, even during the middle of the day.

“On Long Island, we have these nuances we have to work through, such as all the different layers of government,” she said. “I joked with electeds that we were spamming their inboxes, but more information is better.”

It was a constant rush of sending information up and down the chain of government. Down the line was Nicole Amendola, the director of intergovernmental affairs for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). Amendola rose through the ranks to become director in April, and where she and others in the executive’s office worked long hours to supply local government with the latest information.

Amendola, who reiterated it was a team effort, said that along with her communication work, she was also on the side of making sure different bodies such as fire departments or hospitals were getting the PPE or resources they needed.

“Things were changing so rapidly, not even from the state but even from the federal level, so we had to make sure that we were able to communicate properly and efficiently to all levels of government,” she said. “The work, definitely, was very, very top heavy in terms of hours in the beginning of everything because there was just so much we didn’t know and understand, and things were literally constantly changing.”

Once new regulations and lockdowns were underway, any new information coming in from the governor’s office was immediately poured through. Both state and county offices watched every one of the governor’s daily press conferences to make sure they could get that info to local government. 

Even with such things as trick-or-treating for Halloween, Amendola said they made it their jobs to let people know what was permitted and what was not. When people complained about what was or wasn’t allowed to open and which businesses were included in which reopening phases, their office also sent those complaints back up the chain as well.

Others in local governing offices made consistent remarks to TBR News Media on the good job both Santeramo and Amendola’s offices did during this hectic time. Their near-daily updates on COVID-19, what regulations and what restrictions may have changed, was a huge boon for people struggling to make heads or tails of what they needed to do. 

Now that numbers are spiking, both offices are on constant calls about what may or may not be coming down the pike. And with vaccines also in play, a new kind of communications blitz is incoming.

“I never thought I’d have to deal with people’s safety,” Santeramo said. “But this year and the work we did, it will be the most important work I think I’ll ever do in my life.” 

Public Safety

The year 2020 is going to go down in the record books locally not just because of the pandemic but because of other major events throughout the year. The May killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd sparked waves of protests throughout the country, including several largely peaceful demonstrations on Long Island. Interactions between law enforcement and protesters in Suffolk were mostly harmonious, but in a few places the reaction to those protests grew into a hotbed of misinformation and rumor, especially in the Town of Smithtown. While officials tried to quash those rumors, it was the Smithtown Department of Public Safety that was in the middle of the storm, both figuratively — and it turned out later in 2020 — quite literally.

The Town of Smithtown Public Safety Department made several water rescues during the summer 2020; just one of a few complications to a complicated year. Photo from Thomas Lohmann Jr.

Thomas Lohmann Jr., director of the town public safety office, said when the pandemic first hit, their office was in charge of restricting who could and could not enter town buildings, as well as handling the distribution of PPE throughout Smithtown. While other offices were being cut or shut down, Lohmann’s, with his 55 or so sworn officers and 50 additional civilian staff, was seeing a rapid need for more assistance.

“Everybody here really had to step up and work,” he said. “The communications section, which not only do they dispatch — we also serve three fire departments in the township — and they were extremely busy handling alarms for COVID-19 calls.”

Once things started to reopen, they were there in the local community enforcing restrictions on beaches and in parks. This year, with more boaters out on the water, they completed several water rescues. In enforcing compliance, Lohmann said it was not so much about shutting down businesses as much as talking with owners face-to-face to get them to meet restrictions.

“We recognize the businesses were faced with challenges, and from early onset what we focused on was voluntary compliance,” he said.

During Tropical Storm Isaias in August, the town safety office also became engaged in the work of checking up on people who lacked power. The year 2020 has been fraught with challenges, but for many law enforcement out there, as COVID numbers have risen dramatically in the past two months, the work does not stop.

“We can’t hang a shingle and say we’re shutting down,” Lohmann said, “We’re doing everything we can.”

Government Meal Programs

When the pandemic was at its zenith in late March and early April, the thousands of people who relied on government meal programs found themselves at an even greater loss, unable to get out of the house to even go to the local deli. As senior centers and government offices closed, the many people responsible for getting people food did not back down.

The Suffolk County Office for the Aging works with towns throughout Suffolk in their weekly meal programs. Holly Rhodes-Teague, who heads up the office, is not only in charge of a network of meal programs throughout the 10 towns, she had to keep up with case management, home care, transportation and home repair to allow older adults to remain at home while the pandemic raged outside.

The Town of Brookhaven and Suffolk County Sheriff Department honored frontline workers, including the town’s Health and Human Services Department and its contracted food workers from Florian Foods. Photo from TOB

Before COVID hit, the office was helping to arrange meals for around 2,700 seniors in congregate programs and home deliveries. Once the shutdowns occurred, that jumped to 4,200 people. To this day, those numbers have only slightly dropped to a little over 4,000 folks who depend on these daily meals.

“We were able to transition overnight to adding onto home delivery — we took the current program and made it into a grab-and-go type program for meals,” Rhodes-Teague said. “It was amazing how fast they did that. They didn’t skip more than a day.”

And it wasn’t just food. Through the towns, Holly-Teague said they managed to give out items like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, especially when such items were vacant on store shelves. In between everything, her office was calling elders, some of whom are over 100 years old, to just check up and see how they were doing. In one instance, a caseworker could not get a hold of one of their clients after August’s tropical storm. After visiting the elder at home, the caseworker found the electricity was gone, and the person’s life support had gone out.

“All our people stepped up to the plate,” she said.

In the individual towns, the separate Meals on Wheels programs were suddenly inundated. Laura Greif, Smithtown’s senior citizens program director, said the number of seniors they service doubled during the beginning stages of the pandemic, to over 320 meals a day. What made the situation harder was they had half the staff on, and half off. Other staff within the town came through to help instead. With the Smithtown Senior Center closed to visitors, she said they were making over 2,000 calls to elder folk within the town to check up on them regularly.

Once things calmed down, she said her crew even started taking some seniors food shopping. She thanked everyone who worked with her.

“In the beginning it was difficult as we were half-staffed,” Greif said. “Without such an amazing staff and town, it would have been difficult to get it all done. We’re very happy to do this much-needed service.”

Alison Karppi, commissioner of Housing & Human Services at the Town of Brookhaven, said before the pandemic they were supplying meals to 130 homebound seniors, plus those in their congregate program. Once the senior centers closed, that number jumped to over 500 seniors a day. Additionally, the town’s senior citizen division delivered 208 boxes of food to residents in need through Suffolk County’s food insecurity program.

It would take a whole host of Brookhaven employees to reach every single one of those who needed food every day, and not just those from HHS. Workers from other town offices such as the parks department would become drivers to get meals out to seniors spread throughout over 500 square miles. Karppi said unlike other municipalities that were forced to make meals cold, thanks to the town’s cafeteria in Town Hall and its food contractor, Florian Food Service, Brookhaven was regularly sending out warm meals to its seniors. 

Making sure the food stayed warm took a whole lot of effort on the part of multiple employees, and Karppi wanted to thank all those drivers whose constant work provided such a necessary service, as well as Dawn Marcasia, who created the route list for drivers every day of the week. Delivering meals also served as a way to check up on seniors, and when there was no response at the door, that information was passed onto the senior citizen division.

Through all of that, the town workers helped deliver over 75,000 meals to seniors at their homes from March through December. 

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) expressed how this service has been critical, even as we’re still not out of the woods yet.

“This pandemic is far from over, we’re at least another year anywhere back to where we were before,” he said. “This has been a lifeline to so many of these people.”

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, right, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. File photo

Members of a task force meant to offer reforms to Suffolk police met with community members in the 6th Precinct Dec. 8 through Zoom to listen to concerns.

As part of the Suffolk County Police Reform & Reinvention Task Force, members have been hosting Zoom meetings for each of the town’s seven precincts plus East End towns for community comment. Members of the task force include everyone from Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Suffolk police union president Noel DiGerolamo to NAACP chapter president Tracey Edwards and Daniel Russo, administrator of Assigned Counsel Defender Plan of Suffolk County. 

In a meeting that went on for just under three hours and had over 150 participants Dec. 8, many in the community expressed some fear and apprehension surrounding police, often with people of color citing a different experience with law enforcement members than their white neighbors. A few others shared their general support for police and expressed their thanks for officers’ involvement in the community.

Erica Rechner, director of Opportunities Long Island, which tries to connect youth in underserved communities with jobs in the unionized construction industry, said she mostly works with many young people of color in communities who live in areas with high unemployment, and some come to her with criminal records. The interactions she said she’s had with police have been much different than those of her young clients.

“Their experience with the police department is not one me or my family recognize,” Rechner said. “My experience has been one of safety and security — I’m a white woman. At some point in their shared experiences the police officers are verbally abusive and often escalate to the use of excessive force. There are numerous instances of physical injury while in custody.”

She said she asked these young people to share their experiences at the public sessions, but practically all declined, fearing retaliation.

“Their experience has taught them the police are not meant for them or their community,” she added.

Odalis Hernandez, a graduate program administrator at Stony Brook University, said she was once stopped by police officers at night “with multiple police officers shining a flashlight in every window and asking for my ID and documents,” adding she felt she was being treated as up to no good from the get-go.

“I know of others who have been through much worse,” she said. “We can’t deny that those problems exist, and we need to hear that from all our precincts and leadership. We can’t let the police have a political affiliation because that disenfranchises people in the community.”

Hernandez said such things as bias and de-escalation training should not be a one-and-done class but should be a continuous dialogue for police.

Others criticized the Suffolk School Resource Officer Program, with some speakers saying such officers statistically lead to more physical confrontations and create more of a school-to-prison pipeline. Others said such officers target students who are people of color and treat them differently than white students for the same offenses. 

Michelle Caldera-Kopf, an immigration lawyer and managing attorney for the Safe Passage Project, said that SROs have caused “the wrongful detention and deportation of our students.” She said such officers have shared information about students with immigration authorities, sometimes over the heads of law enforcement.

Others indicated more positive interactions with police. Rob Taylor, a member of the Citizens Academy Alumni Association, said police already do a lot of things in the community people are not aware of.

“Suffolk County has gone through a lot of changes over the years, especially since around 2014 — they’re all EMTs, they’ve undergone crisis training,” he said.

Gail Lynch-Bailey, president of the Middle Island Civic Association, said that with whatever reforms take place, “I hope we don’t lose what’s already working in these relationships — community policing is still essential.” 

She added that police should look for uniformity on how crime data is presented and distributed at civic meetings, with more emphasis on displays and data-driven dialogue, such info to be published for all to see online.

“Real police reform must be data driven, and that data has to include honest breakdowns of who is being charged and where those charges are taking place,” she said.

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) said there should be efforts to expand the positive interactions between community and police, some of which includes just talking about what may be going on in people’s neighborhoods.

“These are all things why we need to have our police department out there, doing events, interacting, because that really supports the mission our police department is here to do,” he said.

Others shared their desire for those Black and brown voices in the community to be heard. Erin Zipman, from Stony Brook, said police need to listen to those, envisioning a future where we don’t have to endanger the lives of citizens or officers, and instead focus on treating “the roots of problems instead of punishing them.”

The task force is part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. This executive order, originally signed in June, cites that every police agency must make a comprehensive review of police departments and their procedures, and address the needs of the community to promote “trust, fairness and legitimacy, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.” 

The county has an April 1, 2021, deadline to create its reform plan for its police department to be eligible for future state funding.

Stony Brook Children’s Hospital Celebrates 10 Years with Long Island Aquarium Show. Photo from SBHU

For 40 years, Stony Brook University Hospital has been caring for kids, but 2020 holds an even more notable moment for Suffolk County’s sole children’s hospital. 

The outside of Stony Brook University Children’s Hospital. Photo from SBUH

Dr. Carolyn Milana, chair of the Department of Pediatrics and physician-in-chief at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, said this year is a very special one. 

The children’s hospital is celebrating its 10-year anniversary as a standalone hospital, after opening its new building last year. 

“Our brand-new facility allows us to continue to provide the same expert care to the children and adolescents of Suffolk County in a state-of-the-art environment designed to promote healing,” she said. “All of the space within the children’s hospital, and the programs we offer, are designed to support both the child and their family throughout their hospital stay.”

At the new building, live feeds from the Long Island Aquarium are shown in the lobby and throughout the pediatric floors.

An inside look at the Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. Photo from SBUH

To celebrate its decade-long care, the children’s hospital teamed up with the Riverhead-based aquarium for a sea lion show virtually shown to supporters, patients and their families. On Dec. 9, viewers tuned in as the sea lion balanced balls, did tricks and posed in a delightful routine that kids and adults enjoyed.

Snows blanket the ground at a winter storm hits the North Shore Dec. 16 into 17. Photo by Kyle Barr

*Update: This version of the story includes the number of homes who are still without power as of 4 p.m.

The Nor’easter that hit the east coast cut out power to thousands of homes on Long Island. By 4 p.m. on Thursday, the number of homes without power declined to 348. Earlier in the day, 3,444 homes were without electricity. PSEG Long Island said it had restored power to more than 98% of the homes affected by the storm.

PSEG LI expected to restore power to all homes by the end of the day.

“We expect to restore power to all remaining customers today,” PSEG LI said in a statement.

PSEG added personnel, including tree and line crews, to repair damage and restore outages. The utility had more than 1,300 line workers, tree trimmers, surveyors and other personnel on site to restore power.

“This storm brought down trees and wires throughout our service area,” John O’Connell, Vice President, Transmission & Distribution, PSEG Long Island, said in a statement. “We know that being without power for any length of time is a hardship and we thank our customers for their patience as we work through the damage and difficult conditions to restore their power [as] safely and quickly as possible.”

In an update on the storm, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) described the number of power outages as “good news,” as outages were a “big concern here because of the nature of the storm.” Bellone spoke with reporters at the Department of Public Works in Commack.

“We did not see a significant number of power outages in this storm,” Bellone added.

Bellone suggested that outages may have been lower because some of the limbs and trees that could have come down had already fallen or been removed.

Suffolk County Police Department Chief Stuart Cameron, meanwhile, thanked the Department of Public Works and the police department for working through the night.

As of 8 a.m., Chief Cameron said the county had 171 accidents since 4 p.m. the night before. Police were working on two active crashes, which is lower than they would normally have.

Chief Cameron also wanted to thank many residents of Suffolk County for heeding the advisory and staying off the roads.

Some of the ramps for the Long Island Expressway still had plenty of snow and slush on them. Chief Cameron advised drivers to consider taking the next ramp, if their exit appeared challenging from the conditions.

Chief Cameron also urged residents to give themselves plenty of time to clear their car of snow and ice before they need to leave their homes.

“My car was heavily iced,” Chief Cameron said. “It took me a long time to clean” it off.

Looking at the forecast for Friday, Bellone said the colder temperatures could create conditions for black ice. He urged people to be “careful throughout [Thursday] and into tomorrow as well.”

A look at Port Jefferson Harbor from the Village Center during Winter Storm Grayson as blizzard-force winds and more than a foot of snow pound the coast in January, 2018. File photo

As the nor’easter bears down on the mid-Atlantic states, the forecast for Long Island continues to include considerable snow, although the forecast varies by area.

The estimated snowfall ranges from 6 inches to 13 inches.

“We know the storm will be hitting us harder on the west end of Suffolk County, rather than the east end, where we’ll see lower amounts,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said during a weather update at the Commack Department of Public Works.

The storm will also hit harder in the north, rather than the south shore.

“This is going to be a heavy, wet snow, which is, of course, something that creates its own set of challenges,” Bellone said.

Bellone urged residents to return to their homes as early as possible tonight. The storm is expected to increase in intensity this evening through the overnight hours. During that time, snow could accumulate at the rate of one to two inches per hour.

“You should be off the roads by the latest, at 9 p.m. tonight.

While the east end will get lower snow totals, the area will have higher winds, with gusts of up to 57 miles per hour.

The county is opening its emergency operations center today and expects to have it open through tomorrow at 4 p.m..

The Department of Public Works has 200 vehicles ready, with about 19 tons of salt at their disposal to help clear the snow and ice from the roads.

Bellone urged residents to try to work from home on Thursday, if they can.

“Tomorrow is a day, if you can, to stay home,” Bellone urged.

Suffolk County Police Department Chief Stuart Cameron said this type of heavy snow can clog the chute of a snow blower.

“You should never, ever stick your hand” in the chute, Cameron cautioned, even if the device is turned off, because a blade can rotate and severely injure someone’s hand.

Cameron also advised against bringing a barbecue or generator inside the house because they release carbon monoxide, which can be dangerous to homeowners.

At this point, Bellone said there were no changes to the bus schedule. He urged residents to check for any modifications, particularly tomorrow after the snowstorm passes.

To report and receive status updates on an outage Text OUT to PSEGLI (773454) or to report an outage online visit www.psegliny.com

To register, have your account number available and text REG to PSEGLI (773454)

Downed wires should always be considered “live.” Do not approach or drive over a downed line and do not touch anything contacting the wire. To report a downed wire, call PSEG Long Island’s 24-hour Electric Service number: 1-800-490-0075

A snowstorm that took place Nov. 15, 2018 blindsided drivers on their way from work. Suffolk workers are trying to avoid that same situation. File photo by Kyle Barr

With a snowstorm the Weather Channel has already named Gail bearing down on Long Island, packing 50 mph winds and predicted snowfalls of around a foot, Suffolk County officials urged residents to avoid the Wednesday evening and Thursday morning commutes, if possible.

Suffolk County Police Department Chief Stuart Cameron said people driving in the snow during either commute could create dangerous conditions.

“People haven’t driven in snow for some time,” Cameron said Tuesday at a press conference at the Department of Public Works Yard Salt Barn in Commack. “If you can work remotely tomorrow, I would advise that.”

Similarly, Chief Cameron said the Thursday morning commute could be “much more impacted” and suggested “if you can stay home, that would be great.”

Additionally, he said temperatures close to freezing might create the kind of conditions that favors heavy, wet snow.

“If you have health conditions, it might be wise to pay someone to clear your driveway,” Chief Cameron suggested.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said last year was a “light” year for snow, which means that the supply of salt for clearing snow-covered roadways is “plentiful right now.”

As of early on Tuesday, Bellone said the forecast called for snow to start around 2 p.m. and should worsen through the evening.

The combination of high winds, sleet and snow increases the possibility of power outages.

In a press release, PSEG indicated that the conditions could cause tree limbs to break and pull down wires.

PSEG is bringing in mutual aid crews to work with the company’s personnel on the island.

“Our workforce is performing system checks and logistics checks to ensure the availability of critical materials, fuel and other supplies,” John O’Connell, vice president of Transmission & Distribution at PSEG LI said in a statement.

During the storm, Long Island may create an enhancement to the outage communications process. With this enhancement, customers can contact the Call Center early in the storm to receive an “Assessing Conditions” message, rather than an estimated time of restoration.

This will give crews time to assess storm impact before setting power restoration expectations.

This procedural change comes after PSEG LI encountered numerous communication problems amid Tropical Storm Isaias earlier this year, during which customers couldn’t contact the utility and PSEG provided misleading estimated times to restore power.

PSEG said residents can report outages by texting OUT to PSEGLI. People can also report outages through the app, website at www.psegliny.com/outages or with their voice using Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant app on their smartphones.

Residents who would like to report an outage or downed wire can call the electric service number, at 800-490-0075.

Bellone said county officials would monitor the power restoration process.

“Through the emergency operation center, we will be working closely with PSEG, making sure they are doing everything they can to keep power on and to restore power if it does go out,” Bellone said.

The forecast conditions may mean that plowing could take longer, as drivers operate during white out conditions, Bellone said.

“It’s slow going in these kinds of conditions,” Bellone said.

Bellone said the crews are prepared and will work in overnight hours to make sure roadways are cleared.

Recognizing all the challenges 2020 has brought, Bellone said it is “not surprising as we get towards the end of this very strange year that we’ll have another first: our first pandemic snowstorm.”

Stock photo

Local school districts are still maintaining low COVID-19 numbers, while the rest of Suffolk County is nearing 6% in some areas. According to district leadership, that’s because schools have been constantly evolving their plans to keep students, staff and the community safe.

Centereach High School in the Middle Country School District. The district superintendent is just one of many continuing to keep students safe. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Middle Country school district covers a large jurisdiction, Dr. Roberta Gerold, superintendent of schools, said. In non-COVID times, there are roughly 11,000 students within the district, though now approximately 7,500 are in buildings due to hybrid and remote learning options. The district has only had 102 positive COVID cases since the start of school, a 1.3% infection rate — with 52 of those cases coming from Thanksgiving break.

“We have such strong guidelines we’re containing it, not spreading it,” she said. “We know where [students and staff have] been and who they’ve been with.”

Like all the other districts, students are required to wear a mask at all times, except during mask breaks. Social distancing has been implemented with barriers on desks, and teachers are asked to keep their windows and doors open.

If a student is showing symptoms, they are immediately placed into an isolation room and brought home.

But that barely happens, according to Gerold. “The community is doing a good job because they’re not sending us positive kids,” she said. “We’re not getting a lot of cases in the schools.”

Ronald Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said that over the summer, local superintendents began putting together plans to better prepare their districts.

“When the pandemic started, there was a feeling of uncertainty,” he said. “But now what we’ve found is we could place a great deal on social distancing.”

Because they have been implementing and following CDC guidelines, he said they’re not seeing spread within the schools.

“Controlled environment helps keep the community safe,” he said. “Even if we see the community numbers rise, I think the government, politicians, leadership and superintendents know how important keeping schools open is.”

A representative from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) office agreed, and said the new guidelines released last month are to keep the doors of local schools open.

“We encourage them to not be closed, but to test instead,” they said.

Guidelines now require mass testing in schools in red, orange and yellow micro-cluster zones before they reopen, followed by vigilant symptom and exposure screening conducted daily. Impacted schools can reopen as early as Monday, however students and faculty must be able to provide a negative COVID-19 test result prior to going back to the classroom. New York State will provide rapid test kits for schools wishing to participate.

After a school reopens in a red or orange micro-cluster zone, vigilant symptom and exposure screening must be conducted daily. A quarter of the in-person learning school community — both students and faculty/staff — must be tested per week, and the school should ensure that it provides opportunities to test on school grounds, or otherwise facilitates testing and accepts test results from health care providers.

If the school does not hold a testing event or provide testing on school grounds, test results provided to the school as part of the 25% testing of the population must be received within seven days.

The governor’s representative said that no regions have hit the 9% emergency number, which would close the county again. Schools, however, have flexibility regarding choosing a comfortable closing percentage.

“They can use their own metrics to close down districts or schools as long as those metrics don’t go against the state mandate of 9%,” the representative said. “A lot of things are state law governed. Schools are done by the locals, and we wanted to be within the local district rules.”

The latest number of confirmed and new COVID-19 cases in the Town of Brookhaven, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services on Dec. 7 is 17,307, while a school district like Shoreham-Wading River has seen just a total of 43 positive tests for students and teachers/staff as at Dec. 8.

“I would like to thank our parents, staff and students for implementing the required COVID-19 health protocols this year. The daily temperature checks, health screening forms and conversations about washing hands, wearing masks properly and socially distancing have been really effective in keeping or schools open, healthy and safe,” said Superintendent Gerard Poole in an email statement. “The district is fully prepared for a shift to distance learning if a closure is mandated. We have a great distance learning plan and have already shifted this year successfully for a day or two when necessary due to COVOD-19 related school closures.“

File photo of Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan. Photo by Kyle Barr

Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said that they are hopeful to remain on their current course, but are prepared to pivot their instructional models as directed by the governor’s office.

“Moving forward, our schools will continue to follow the guidance provided at the local, regional and state levels, including any prescribed steps needed should our area become designed a yellow, orange or red zone,” she said. “We are grateful to our students, staff and community for their unwavering support of and adherence to our initiatives. Their collective efforts have helped to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within our schools and allowed us to keep our buildings open for in-person instruction.”

Marianne Cartisano, superintendent of Miller Place school district, said schools, to date, are the safest places for children to succeed academically, socially and emotionally.

“We are also fortunate to have the acknowledgement of social responsibility in our community, coupled with everyone’s common goal to keep schools open,” she said.

The latest number of confirmed and new COVID-19 cases in the Town of Brookhaven, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services on Dec. 7 is 17,307, while a school district like Three Village has seen just a total of 72 positive tests for students and teachers/staff as at Dec. 8.

“Our district continues to follow the guidance of the Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Cheryl Pedisich, Three Village superintendent of schools, said. “We are fully prepared to implement any prescribed measures to keep our schools open, safe and operating in the best interest of all of our students and staff.”

Elwood school district Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Bossert said he agrees with statements made by Cuomo and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a recent joint press conference.

“Governor Cuomo used the words ‘amazing and astonishing’ to describe how low the infection rates are in schools as compared to many of the communities surrounding them,” Bossert said. “We agree that our schools are safe places for students, faculty and staff. The guidelines that have been put in place in collaboration with the Suffolk County Department of Health are designed to keep students and staff safe and school open.”

Bossert said in addition to mask wearing, distancing and appropriate hygiene, it’s important for those who are symptomatic or think they have been exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 to stay home.

“We are so very thankful to our parents and community members for demonstrating an understanding of the role we each play and acting out of an abundance of caution when making decisions about their children,” he said. “We are confident that we can keep students safe in our school buildings — where we know they will enjoy the greatest benefit of our instruction program, socialization with one another, and have positive interactions with their teachers.”

Smithtown school district superintendent, Mark Secaur, said he is planning for several different scenarios, including the potential of COVID testing in schools, or going back to completely remote.

“Based on the relative safety of our students and staff, providing education for those two things has been at odd at times,” he said. “But it’s the balance we have to navigate because of the pandemic.”

“We have proven that schools are safer than the outside community,” Secaur added. “Kids have been amazing. They’re excited to be with their friends again, and the kids have been more resilient than some adults.”