Monthly Archives: May 2020

Monday, May 18 update

NYS update: Buffalo, which was at least a hundred people behind on their contact tracing army, has apparently hired them all overnight. Hopefully their training will go well. Wegmaniacal (who I believe is in the Finger Lakes region) reports:

However the state’s tracers get hired and trained, they unfortunately will have work to do:

Nine new lab-confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in Clinton County are associated with several recent parties in Plattsburgh. All nine are isolating in their homes. None are currently hospitalized. Contact tracing as of Friday evening had identified 27 individuals as close contacts. These people are now in quarantine. “This rise in cases is very disturbing because it was preventable,” said John Kanoza, the County’s Director of Public Health.

How New York State’s reopening program compares to other states; also, how Germany is handling its reopening.

Onondaga County update: This was a milestone day for the county in more ways than one. Unfortunately, one of these milestones was purely negative: we finally went past 100 deaths, once state nursing home tallies were added in. The hospitalization total remains high, but we’re told that at least ten of those hospitalized are COVID nursing home patients who aren’t all that sick, and don’t yet have any alternative facility to go. The community spread number continues to go down. (We’ll know in about a week what effect the CNY reopening has had on transmission rates.)

As for the other news — the “secret” is finally out — yes, the new warehouse in Clay is Amazon; honestly what else could it have been? Three months ago, I think a lot of people would have been retching at the prospect of Amazon having such a huge footprint in CNY, perhaps myself included. It’s still problematic and distasteful, but I suspect it will be accepted with more equanimity than it would have been three months ago. It’s unclear to me how big the tax giveaway on this really is, but considering the gifts that were given to much lesser lights, and the other swindles we have endured in the years since then, this does feel… different. This isn’t Syracuse trying to reinvent itself with beanstalk-shaped malls and film studios and the Creative Class. For better or worse, Amazon is a functional conglomerate, a known entity that will do known things — both for, and to people.

However, it also feels different in a different way. The pandemic crisis put the spotlight on essential workers and the ways they are used and abused; how temporary or permanent will that spotlight be? It’s too soon to tell if warehouse workers in Syracuse will start their jobs in a different world in 2021. And while we’re speculating about the future… why would Amazon want to look at Syracuse for a major warehouse and distribution center? Does Syracuse’s location, not far from the St. Lawrence Seaway and New York’s drone corridor, say something about their view of the future?

Sunday, May 17 update

Big news today: the governor got a COVID test on live TV. And many other people are qualified to get tests too now, he says. Well, okay; but in Onondaga County they threw open the testing to everyone last week in a last-ditch effort to hit the all-important seventh metric.

Erm, about those metrics

The Capital Region can begin reopening this week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Sunday, after the state recalibrated the metrics needed to start reviving the economy. The region has now met six of the seven requirements to reopen and is working to scale up its contact tracing operations to start phase one of the reopening process, Cuomo said…

Jim Malatras said on Sunday that the state has updated its reopening criteria so that the latter metric does refer to the most recent three-day averages of the net increase in hospitalizations and daily hospital deaths for the region. An explanation of the metrics on the “NY Forward” website now states that the hospitalization and death average “does not exceed” 15 and five, respectively, instead of “has never exceeded” those numbers. “We were confusing the hell out of people, I think, on that metrics dashboard, so we tried to clear that up for people,” Malatras said. “It got really confusing really fast.”

The changes to the metrics did not, however, address the mysteries of the state health department’s data collection practices.

WNY is also a beneficiary of this movement of goalposts, and they too have magically come up to a score of 6 out of 7 as of today. While no one could be glad that regions of the state have been unable to reopen, Buffalo and Albany have apparently been deemed “too big to fail.” (But that’s just my take on it. WNY’s conservative partisans — always legends in their own minds — are currently dancing around their bonfire triumphantly, positive that this reprieve for their region is due to Cuomo being scared of some local law firm suing the state.)

Although CNY is not in danger of falling back on the hospitalization metric that has (up to now) bedeviled WNY, hospitalization totals in Onondaga County continue to increase, and today were reported at an all-time high of 66, with 93 now dead. The community spread case number continued to be mild (10 new cases today).

Following on the heels of yesterday’s NYT story on where NYC residents of means ran to, is a look at where they are forwarding their mail. If there was ever any doubt about it, the data makes it clear: New York City residents did not flee to “trans-Hudson” upstate New York in any significant numbers. They almost completely bypassed us, in fact. And if there remains any doubt about this next point, the data has already demonstrated that when NYC sneezes, Upstate does not catch a cold. At least away from the Hudson Valley, Upstate’s infection rates have been no more notably severe than in other “flyover” metropolitan areas in the Northeast that have been locked down.

The next big test, obviously, is how much of an economic cold “the regions” will suffer through when NYC’s economic cratering forces Albany to savagely cut local funding. It’s probably not going to be just the sniffles. Having dealt with the containment and reopening stages as best they could, local authorities are grimly trying to prepare the public for the economic agony to come. “Without New York City, you’d be Mississippi” is the old saying. Everyone cast this as some kind of a choice we’d be foolish to make. Now that the choice has been made for us — because NYC is now at least temporarily “Jackson, Mississippi” — perhaps we can get rid of that conversation-killer once and for all.

It is difficult, though, to get the public at large to see crisis as opportunity. The automobile — something that the average NYC worker does not have at their disposal — is proving to be something of an economic lifeboat in upstate counties. Auto dealers were the first businesses to reopen, since counties rely on them for sales tax. At least in the Syracuse area, pop-up drive-throughs have become wildly popular. Now that drive-in movies are the only mass entertainment that seems safe, other businesses are getting in on the act… sort of.

Arlington Acres in LaFayette, New York, is partnering with Nomad Cinema to show “The Goonies” after sunset on Saturday, May 23. The 100-acre family farm, also known as a barn wedding and event venue, announced on Facebook that reservations were filled within hours.  Arlington Acres owner Katie Jerome told syracuse.com | The Post-Standard that they will not be charging for tickets, but will ask for a suggested donation of $15 per car or $5 per person to help cover costs of the first event.

“I don’t expect to make money, it’s more of a community thing,” she said.  “We are not trying to steal any business from any drive-in movie theaters or other businesses.”

These people are assuming that the popularity of outdoor venues will be a temporary blip and that they can go back to the wedding business soon, and that is probably true. However, it doesn’t exactly betray a killer business instinct, and that’s part of the problem with businesses around here in general: they only feel able to fit into specialized niches, and even then it has been a struggle even in good times.

One small blessing of the pandemic, at least in the Syracuse area, is that it’s a way to gauge what local economy actually still exists when the usual economic activity has been cut to the bone. One State Fair food drive-through is a cute story. Two independent State Fair food drive-throughs is a faint heartbeat. Three or more food drive-throughs, with a popup drive-in theater put on by another company nearby, would be an informal (though tiny) economic sector.

Not that this pop-up business activity would be long-lasting or relevant once things get “back to normal” — but it’s interesting to observe, much like it’s interesting to observe small, shy wildlife becoming more bold when the big humans aren’t stomping around.

Saturday, May 16 update

NYS update: Buffalo is doing a little better today and hospitalizations are beginning to fall. Hospitalization rates are one of the two reopening metrics that have been stubborn in Western New York (the other is the death rate). No one in WNY seems to be disputing the data. The struggle over data is ongoing in the Capital region, however.

One of the weird (good?) things about the coronavirus crisis is that suddenly, in front of the whole world, New Yorkers have been forced into awareness of localities they never thought much about — or never knew existed, as some NYC residents’ hilariously clueless reactions to the term “Central New York” demonstrate. Observing the data hell going on in the greater Albany region, I myself have started to gain a new appreciation for the unique pains of different localities. It must be frustrating for local governments close to Albany to be so near, and yet so far, from the halls of state power. There has to be a unique degree of political distortion that happens to local government when the center of gravity is physically in your midst. Maybe it would be better for everyone if Cuomo and his court just toured the state permanently and didn’t stay in any one place for longer than a fortnight.

There’s a long, painful piece in ProPublica about the weeks of chaos leading up to New York’s gradual shutdown (focusing mainly on NYC). DeBlasio and Cuomo both don’t come off very well. And this is all the stuff that came before the threatened Upstate ventilator grab, the $60 million spent on phantom equipment, the erroneous March 25 nursing home order, and the bad data some parts of the state are still struggling with. The state’s biggest power players didn’t know what to do in a crisis. New York State’s citizens didn’t benefit from their association with the richest and most powerful people in the world. In fact, the rich and powerful fled the state.

When will the rank and file stop paying attention to what the power players say? It will depend on how long this crisis of state governance continues. Left to smolder, a crisis of governance becomes a crisis of authority; dragged on even longer, it becomes a crisis of legitimacy. That kind of decay takes years, but unfortunately we’ve already taken a big step in that direction. And you don’t come back from a performance like this by haughtily pretending it didn’t happen.

Onondaga County update: With CNY in Phase One, for better or worse, we are being gradually weaned off our daily county COVID briefing and have been left to our own devices for the entire weekend. Today, the thing to do was watch the skies for the old warplanes flying around on a hospital tribute tour. It’s a sign that we’re not anywhere near back to normal, that this was kind of a big thing that everyone wanted to see.

There’s a free and uneasy feeling as people get outside — how “smart” are we collectively, really?

As spring sunshine drew large crowds to the CNY Regional Market on Saturday, one thing was clear: You can get people to wear masks, but at the market you can’t get them to spread out. There were no one-way aisle signs, plexiglass partitions, or six-foot social distancing signs. Some shoppers found it jarring. One remarked to his companion while trying to avoid the masses, “We are going to have social Darwinism. People can’t help themselves.”

(Actually, we’re probably just going to have Darwinism here in Syracuse. Social Darwinism is what is going to be done to us by Congress.)

The death toll in Onondaga County reached 92. The new community-spread case figure for today was 15, pretty much in line with yesterday’s total. Hospitalizations were slightly up, with a decrease in ICU cases.

Friday, May 15 update

NYS update: Cuomo will open the beaches. Actually, other states opened their beaches and we are going along. Will anyone go, and more importantly, what forms of transportation will they take to and from the beaches?

From the New York Times, a data-driven look at who left New York City during the pandemic and where they went. (Where will these locusts go next?)

News from the world of people who can’t go anywhere:

“He said, ‘Babe I think it’s in here,’ and I said, ‘Handsome, why you think it’s in there?’”  The coronavirus was in the prison. The place where they were making hand sanitizer to protect the public from COVID-19 now had its own outbreak. To date, 32 inmates at Great Meadow have contracted the virus.  In mid-April, Evans-Henry got another call, this time from prison staff. Her husband was positive for COVID-19.

Three rural counties in still-closed Western New York just want to GTFO:

Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties want to be considered as a sub-region, separately from Erie and Niagara counties, which have far more Covid-19 deaths and hospitalizations, according to Chautauqua County Executive Paul M. Wendel Jr. “We are not declaring independence, but we are looking to ask them to look at our numbers in the current situation. We have a uniqueness of all three counties,” he said at a news conference in Chautauqua County.

If you want to get away, state parks have done something pretty smart and have thrown open all camping reservations for the 2021 season. Normally there is a nine-month reservation window for sites, but this has been waived and you can go to Reserve America and choose any 2021 date you want. I did my part to support the parks and made some reservations; the parks probably won’t be able to fully operate this year if they didn’t do that. I have a feeling that making reservations years in advance will become the norm going forward, if only because the state parks may be having to dig themselves out of a deep hole starting now. And depending on how people feel about long-distance travel in the next few years, staycations may become very much in demand.

More good news: the Erie Canal is slowly coming back on line, region by region. As in 1820, the Long Level will open first.

Onondaga County update: This afternoon, I looked out my back window to see what appeared to be a huge kiddie birthday party going on at a house on the next street. Then their mask-free parents shooed them back in the house as lightning began to flash. We’re talking about fifteen kids and two or three sets of guardians. Happy CNY Reopening Day, everyone! Go crazy, do whatever you want. Sigh. It’s going to be a long few weeks…

The county briefing was short, because everyone wanted to get out and, ironically, go home before the storm hit.

The continuing death toll at nursing homes has not abated (six today, which brings the county total deaths to 90). It turns out that Onondaga was not “special.” The virus just took a while to get inside our nursing homes. Once there, it has done its business with abandon and it seems that no amount of proactive testing will contain it. Community spread, however, continues to go down (probably a trailing indicator).

The CE guessed that there are probably “hundreds” of local businesses that tried to open today, but the state has not sent the counties any information on which ones completed the required online state certification process, so the county as yet has no list of businesses to check on. The success of the whole reopening plan really seems to hinge on what percentage of people actually take the rules seriously. It is going to take more than Cuomo looking gubernatorial, or county executives standing at podiums.

It doesn’t matter if businesses are now open, though, because everyone will be at the dueling drive-through State Fairs, which continue to be crazy popular.

Cars began lining up before the official 1 p.m. Friday start of Carnival Eats Syracuse, the second local pop-up drive-thru fair food event to debut in Central New York in the past few weeks. This event runs until 7 p.m. today and 1 to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in a vacant lot near the corner of North Geddes and Spencer streets.

Earlier in the afternoon, the city of Syracuse held its weekly briefing. I mostly tuned in because they had Chol Majok on to talk for a bit. I like Mayor Walsh, but wow, when he was asked about Katko voting against the COVID relief bill, his mild-mannered response reminded me of that old SNL skit where Jon Lovitz’s Michael Dukakis expressed outrage over being accused of not being passionate enough. The mayor needs to learn to play his I-card a little better. (I could say the same of McMahon at times, although he has not been asked about Katko.)

In any case, I think it will be a definite sign that the United States has actually collapsed when either of these two dare to show a bit of emotion over the fact that the GOP seems to have every intention of throwing all of New York State, including them, to the dogs.

Thursday, May 14 update

NYS update: Cuomo was back in Syracuse today — I was going to say “announce CNY’s Phase 1 opening,” but he didn’t really do that — a Powerpoint was flashed showing all seven of our metrics in green, and that was it. No matter — it’s great to have that out of the way.

He also talked about PPE needing to be manufactured in-state, which would be great, if Albany wasn’t responsible for putting together any “deals.” A modest grant ($3 million) has been put up toward this purpose. (This seems like an awfully familiar type of amount, reserved for stuff he doesn’t lie awake at nights thinking about.) He also seemed to hint that cancelling the State Fair was not a done deal. (Which is nuts. I haven’t talked to a single person who’d want to go, and going to the Fair if you live in Syracuse is the law.)

Things are not going so well elsewhere in the state. Much like you dread the fact that more child abuse is happening behind closed doors these days, broken towns and cities are only getting more broken under the stress of the crisis. Let’s face, there isn’t a city in New York that hasn’t been broken for a while — but when their governments are really broken, it’s grim to contemplate.

Ogdensburg City Councilor Michael B. Powers said Tuesday that Mr. Skelly had gone to City Hall on Monday night after the council’s online meeting had been postponed by the City Clerk Cathy Jock. Mr. Skelly was pounding on the door and demanding he be let in, frightening the three employees in the building who called the police, Mr. Powers said. Mr. Skelly said he had gone to City Hall to talk to Ms. Jock and was told by Ogdensburg Police Chief Andrew D. Kennedy that he could not go inside.

Things didn’t get better.

In New York City, things got ugly at the height of the virus wave between the health department and the NYPD over mask supplies, and the repercussions continue:

Meanwhile, work is continuing on the Empire State Trail in this county, including on the median of busy Erie Boulevard. Someday it will, uh, connect New York to itself, or something.

Onondaga County update: Mayor Walsh and CE McMahon had a joint appearance outside of Upstate Hospital this morning as they waited for Cuomo to arrive, to congratulate the hospital workers. One of the great blessings of this particular moment in time is that the city and county are not at loggerheads with each other. This was some years in coming, and not just to do with these two; but if city-county relations had not been functional, I really don’t think that we would done anywhere near as well as we have done during the pandemic. (Incidentally this is the only time I’ve seen McMahon at a photo op during this whole seven or eight weeks. Other CE’s throughout the state are eager to be shown out and about, but apparently McMahon is just always holed up in his office all day with a phone in each hand and a calculator.)

Today’s county briefing was pretty long, and all business. “A new chapter is in front of us” was the only note of celebration at getting to Phase 1, then it was straight into the numbers (two more seniors have passed away, and today’s community spread number yielded, by my calculation, a 7-day average of 14.7, which is down). Businesses which are eligible to open tomorrow have to file a plan with the state at this website and then… cities and counties have to police it, somehow, in ways that the CE was as yet unable to announce because they are putting that airplane together in the air and all. The county will have a local helpline for businesses next week, which may also double as a complaints line for the public if businesses are going rogue.

Although the “Regional Control Room” sounds sexy, it really isn’t. They meet daily and “communicate with the state about how we are and where we are” and “we’re just a bunch of government leaders together.” I’m kind of disappointed by this. Someday, when World War III finally happens and we’re doing all this shelter-in-place again — but without electricity and running water — I wanted to be able to tune in my shortwave radio and pick up a voice saying “This is Regional Control…” But no, it’s just a bunch of business and labor types and county heads who may one day (in a “new twist” per McMahon) work on economic recovery issues.

Looking ahead, it was noted that a future county unit for investigation and enforcement of safety plans might be made up of people who already have experience doing this for restaurant inspections, or the district attorney’s office may supply people skilled at this kind of oversight. I think that window grades for businesses (like NYC does for restaurants) might be a good way to instill confidence, as long as the inspections are real and businesses don’t get tipped off ahead of time. McMahon also said that businesses would be encouraged to be sensitive to the needs of any vulnerable workers and not drag them back to work if they can work at home.

The reporters are always interested to get the county executive on the record talking about on enforcement. McMahon often comes off as a wet noodle on enforcement, but maybe he’s just keeping his options open and doesn’t want to get boxed in too early. Some of the reporters seem to get downright anxious trying to lead him into hypothetical situations where yes, goddamn, by all means he will call in the sheriff to lay the smack down. I laughed out loud at this today when he said, about one of these possible bad businesses gone wild: “Maybe they will need a clarification.” (You could either read that as a total wimp statement or a completely deadpan Don Corleone threat, which is why I found it funny. It’s probably more in the middle of those, but it’s fun to imagine it the latter way.)

One of the key business types that has to be monitored carefully are high-risk ones like outpatient surgery clinics and dentists. I got an e-mail from my dentist’s office this week advising of everything that patients will have to do when they go in for appointments now. It makes a Wegmans run seem like a naked frolic in the fields. Stay in your car, call the office to tell them you’re there, get masked and temperature-gunned, led quickly down the hall to the treatment room where your friendly staff will be in spacesuits, etc. Makes me want to skip my next dentist appointment even more than usual…