Monthly Archives: April 2020

Tuesday, April 21 update

NYS update: A day of travel for Governor Cuomo. All the way over to Buffalo for an update on elective surgery restarts, followed by what must have been a squicky meeting at the White House. The “natives” were restless, circling their F350’s before he even arrived in town, but (annoyingly) the Buffalo press corps only wanted to ask about the upcoming encounter with Trump, not really for any details on the map of New York State’s states (provinces? — the ESDC map of economic regions). This map has now newly entered the public, and perhaps even the national, consciousness — as Cuomo drew a parallel between the states needing to take the lead in a sensible national pandemic reopening response, and different regions of the state being ideal to do likewise on the NYS level.

Unfortunately for Buffalo, the elective surgery news he had to announce — the first sign of reopening anywhere — amounted to a womp, womp for the WNY region, as Erie County did not make the cut of the counties that would be allowed to resume elective surgeries. Almost all of downstate, along with a few other scattered upstate counties (Clinton, Yates and Schuyler among them) did not make the list either. (Surprisingly, Monroe apparently did). Presumably, if your county was not included in the no-fly zone, you get to have elective surgeries again. The guidance:

Hospitals will be able to resume performing elective outpatient treatments on April 28, 2020 if the hospital capacity is over 25 percent for the county and if there have been fewer than 10 new hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the county over the past 10 days. If a hospital is located in a county eligible to resume elective outpatient treatments, but that hospital has a capacity under 25 percent or has had more than 10 new hospitalizations in the past 10 days, that hospital is not eligible to resume elective surgeries. If a county or hospital that has resumed elective surgery experiences a decrease in hospital capacity below the 25 percent threshold or an increase of 10 or more new hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients, elective surgeries must cease. Further, patients must test negative for COVID-19 prior to any elective outpatient treatment. 

This was a quietly important day for Upstate New York, and perhaps the beginning of the end for the very concept. For the first time in a broad and meaningful way, it was demonstrated that “Upstate” is no monolith. Central New York, the Mohawk Valley, and the North Country, along with most of the Finger Lakes, are free to resume at least some economic activity (based on hospital services and COVID impact, dependent on many factors both obvious and also yet to be fully understood). Western New York must, at least for the next couple weeks, hang behind. Is there a shape of things to come to be discerned in this map of (staggeringly awful) YOY unemployment claims?

(It remains to be seen if the number of claims filed partially have something to do with people in different regions being able to get through quickly to the Department of Labor, but it’s worth following up on.)

Some years ago, I wrote a post on this blog called “Upstate conversation killers, and how to get past them.” The greatest conversation killer of the future, however, may be the term “Upstate” itself.

Onondaga County update: Cuomo’s freeing of the regions today was very good news for the three hospital systems of the county, but there was also upsetting news from Washington. At least as of this morning, CNY has lost out on millions of dollars in federal aid to counties, something that NYSAC was stumping very hard for (I saw Marc Molinaro making the case on CSPAN this morning). However, if this blow actually did hit, CE McMahon did not comment on it and wasn’t asked about it during the daily briefing.

The phased-in resumption of elective surgeries was the focus today, but also of note was that the “VSIP” (Voluntary Shelter in Place, the alternate-day plan advanced two weeks ago) has now been discontinued, having caused “confusion and anxiety,” but also having done its work reasonably well as an effective temporary device for public focus on social distancing. (Week-over-week stats were offered.)

As odd as it was, the “VSIP” scheme — which spread to at least two other counties — must have had a certain effect. I went out so infrequently during the last two weeks that I never had to make decisions based on membership in Team Odd or Even; but nevertheless, I knew what “my days” were — Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. I did go out this past Saturday, and I felt satisfied that I just happened to be going out on “my allotted day.” The fact that the county has pre-trained its citizens to think of this already, may become very useful during any second or third virus waves.

The VSIP scheme felt weird, yet clever when it started, although it seemed hard to believe anyone would actually follow it; and now I understand why it felt that way. Keeping the focus of the public is a crucial part of leadership, by any means necessary. As dog trainers know, you have to “dazzle the dog.” McMahon has shown an admirable facility for reaching into an evolving bag of tricks, from reading “mean tweets” (Cameron, where art thou?) to introducing new, relevant metrics every week as developments warrant, and explaining why they have become worth looking at. (Numbers getting numbing? Present flowers to Dr. Gupta for Public Health Professionals’ Day.) Watching various styles of leadership — including Cuomo’s and Trump’s — during this crisis has been most interesting. Trump also “dazzles the dog.” The difference is that Cuomo’s and McMahon’s tactics are firmly rooted in reality and science. Trump’s tricks merely swirl around a terrifying nothingness.

At his press conference, Cuomo announced “regional leaders” for WNY and the Finger Lakes — present and former Democratic lite-guvs Hochul and Duffy. It isn’t a stinging accusation to say that at times like these, it is still about Who You Know and where you can deploy them; naturally, Republican county execs will do the same, which is why Onondaga and Suffolk counties are suddenly great friends. (McMahon also let it slip that we’ve been lending test kits to Steuben County, which was pretty random.) But who is Cuomo’s designated leader of Central New York?

We’ve been in contact with the governor’s office on a daily basis. They’re very well aware of our meetings and how we’re going to put a plan in front of them. Where we are is that Ryan McMahon, the county executive of the largest county in Central, is taking the lead. And Tony Picente, executive of the largest county in Mohawk, which borders Central, is taking the lead. If the governor wants to give us a point person to work with, fantastic… But we’re going to have a document in front of them in short order, and we are coordinated within our counties, not just with elected leaders but with our health commissioners, our emergency management, our purchasing… we are ready to work together more than we ever have before, going forward.

McMahon was also asked about the hiring of the tracing team (the so-called counterpart to food inspectors), and responded with the implication that this could be a shared health service (a health district?) between the seven CNY counties and their respective city governments.

Monday, April 20 update

USA update: Georgia’s governor opts for short-term gain over long-term pain. Also, we have now reached peak oil… storage:

US oil futures were down below $0 a barrel, their worst level since NYMEX opened oil futures trading in 1983. Monday’s plunge comes after prices hit an 18-year low last week as markets realized that record output cuts agreed by OPEC, Russia and other producers aren’t nearly enough to offset the loss in demand.

Tomorrow might be a great day to go fill up your tank, but freakish developments like this probably only mean that a year from now, things will be even more scary. This is reminding me of the collapse of the mark after WWI, and how the French used to cross into Germany to gorge themselves on cheap pastries. Will China be buying up our oil now, or will we be paying them to take it?

NYS update: Now that the daily data really does look favorable, Cuomo can relax a bit and attend to lording it over De Blasio in earnest. Not that I don’t welcome the topic he brought up today — the crying need to attend to NYC’s people in public housing. (Even people who aren’t necessarily living in public housing there, have got it really rough.) I’m of course wondering if those in Syracuse public housing will someday be beneficiaries of Cuomo’s hopes for “change that we could normally never do unless you had this situation.” But I fear the horrible stories from NYC aren’t over yet, so who could argue with a targeted approach?

And at last, upstate hospitals and their need to resume elective surgeries are on Cuomo’s radar, although today he seemed to want to redistribute the financial blow of COVID away from the schools (which yesterday were looking at 50% decrease, according to the governor) and toward the public hospitals and the counties. (Wait, the counties were going to get money?)

Onondaga County update: The local hospitals are itching to put their best faces forward to the state, and today’s kickoff guest at the county briefing was the head of St. Joe’s (“not a doctor,” as he reminded us) who gave a short overview of how very ready they are to resume elective surgeries. Although admitting they did not have unlimited PPE, all other bases were covered: expandable bed capacities in case of future COVID trouble, negative-pressure facilities, rapid testing for prospective surgery customers, ample ventilators. The Syracuse hospitals are ready to go in, coach — just give them a chance!

Also as promised yesterday, the seven CNY counties had at least a visual presence at the briefing in the form of a new poster with a map and curve graph. The map was colored green (incidentally, McMahon’s 2019 campaign color), so as not to scare anyone with red or blue. (Also, Centralnewyorkia resembles Abe Lincoln on a Zamboni, as anything does whenever Herkimer County is involved. Some things never do change.) This data was barely discussed, however, until someone in the press pool wondered about the integrity of the test data coming from all the rural counties that didn’t have anywhere near the robust testing facilities that Onondaga County had managed to put together. No good answer on that. Also, there hasn’t been any one big meeting of the counties yet – “conversations today, conversations tomorrow, conversations all week.”

Today, the county executive tossed back a few questions — about the very imminent end of the “voluntary shelter in place” (the alternating dates thing, set to expire tomorrow), which clearly he doesn’t want to give up on; about where the extra testing kits for seven counties are going to be sourced from (“We’re special in Onondaga, you know that”); and passing on an opportunity to criticize the state about their apparently still crappy enforcement of nursing home transparency.

The real indicator that we are living in strange times, however, came when the nuts and bolts of a local economic restart were discussed. McMahon envisions a future where social distancing inspectors are as much a part of county oversight of local business establishments as are food inspectors. Indeed, right now the county’s food inspectors are doing COVID work — repurposed to join the strained ranks of the county health department, doing contact tracing. And so we now live in a world, at least here in CNY, where a Republican official says, with a straight face, “It’s easier to regulate businesses than people… businesses are saying to me, ‘Regulate us’!”

And this is occurring against a backdrop where I’ve heard some Democratic voices getting really enthusiastic about antibody testing as The Answer — issuing immunity certificates (and new opportunities) to the clean, and somehow magically getting society up and running, and back to the good old global way of doing things, with elaborate centralized monitoring networks run by cutting-edge corporations. (The antibody testing solicitation in Syracuse occurred yesterday at the James Street Wegmans and a Price Chopper on Erie Boulevard, relatively close to the city. It is unknown if the state testing squad will return for more.)

“Who is going to pay for it?” asked a reporter (about the proactive testing, the social distancing inspectors, the new normal). The answer: “We are — Onondaga County.”

Wow. We’re really not in Kansas any more.

Monday, April 20: The magnificent seven

There will never again be a relevant time to ponder hyper-local iconography, so — as seven CNY counties prepare to assemble a regional reopening plan — let’s take a look at the team.

I hope that the CNY League will do better with their recreation of Northeastia than Madison County is doing with its recreation of the New York State seal. The New York seal is already trying to do too much, and I’m not sure what Madison County is trying to communicate here with a very well-dressed colonial and a Native American with the wrong headdress and shorts. I’m not sure if this is the symbolic direction we want to go in.

Oneida County’s seal just cuts to the chase and features… someone who may or may not be an Oneida or a Mohawk.   Notwithstanding the general thorny issue of Native mascots, two feathers straight up actually does not represent any of the Haudenosaunee nations.  (Oneidas have two feathers up and one down, and Mohawks have three feathers up.  Maybe this was a compromise.)  

Can we do better? (If the Village of Whitesboro can come around and get it right, you guys can too.) 

Oswego County obviously had their seal redone sometime in the last 20 years, and it is pretty slick and modern, with carefully chosen clip art and a very cool Fort Oswego-shaped shield.  

Maybe it’s a little too pretty. The nuclear symbol in the center is spot on from a design standpoint, but a little alarming when you think about it harder. That said, it hits all of the county’s many bases.

In Onondaga County, where the 19th century never ended, the iconography is just as complicated, but the message is more blunt.  This seal takes no prisoners.  Pastoral, yes — a sheaf of wheat (no longer grown here), a placid cow — but provoke them, and you will be driven back by the sound of the drums.  There is not much PPE left, but plenty of shot, and they also have Justice’s Terrible Swift Sword.  (Incidentally, the seal of the Onondaga County Legislature features a beehive.)

Cortland County also has got a nice pile of projectiles at the ready, although I don’t know if those are cannonballs or just potatoes.  Well, it’s all good.

Cayuga County was into social distancing before social distancing was cool.  Stay inside your cabin, crack open a book, use the threshing flail to amuse your cat.  Clearly they will be the “Quiet, but Smart” member of the team.

Herkimer County’s seal is, of course, a depiction of General Herkimer, directing the battle, pointing to the future, while expiring from his mortal wound.  This is actually pretty deep.  War is hell.  The fight against the pandemic is hell.  People will die.  Some businesses may never come back.  But we must press onward together toward the sunlit uplands — or at least, the “new normal.”

Sunday, April 19 update

NYS update: Cuomo has judged the state to be on the “downward slope of the mountain,” and today a statewide antibody testing program was announced. We can only hope that these tests are accurate, and that they produce data that can be applied in some sort of intelligent, fair and practical way. The other major part of today’s briefing was another fiscal cry for help from the federal government, as he warned that 50% of New York’s school money might have to be slashed.

Onondaga County update: I was going to say that for the first time since these dual daily briefings began, that I’m now starting to feel that NYS has begun to iron out the bugs, and that I can expect state and local governments to be more often on the same page. Certainly, the relevant curves here (hospitalizations, infections, recoveries) now seem to be similar to those in Cuomo-Land: getting flatter, looking better. (There was, however, a 19th death announced today, and there are still patients in their 30’s who are in critical condition.)

But, once again, the daily county briefing here seems ahead of the curve. The big NYS briefing story today was all about the commencement of antibody testing. The cynical side of me wondered if the testing was going to be a statewide sample, or just in big hotspots. The practical side of me wondered what good systematic antibody testing will do to get things up and running this spring anyway. Yes, if you’re trying to reinstitute pre-2020 global normality and issue Golden Tickets to everyone, antibody testing is useful. (We can have socialism, and still have a system of haves and have-nots, just like the good old days!) So it was good to hear our CE musing about this as well today — if one of your critical employees that you need to run your business doesn’t pass the antibody test, what then? (Lay them off and then give their job to someone who has a proper rabies certificate?)

McMahon also answered my question about where the tests are being done — not only in the places I’d feared, which is good for getting a random statewide sample (I was really hoping the state DOH wasn’t that dumb or political, and I guess they are not). In a stunning reversal, it seems that the state actually reached out and contacted the county on something first. Onondaga County will be having the antibody tests done at two confidential locations on a voluntary basis, which would not be divulged to the media in order not mess up the sampling. (I still don’t understand why that would really be a concern, though, since if these tests are voluntary, I assume people are still being approached to be tested, and somebody couldn’t just drive to Syracuse and blunder into one.)

So once again, I feel like watching the county briefing gives me a sneak peek into news and issues which Cuomo may deal with the following day. We’ll see.

I was very pleased to hear that the Onondaga County briefings will be including the 7-county CNY data going forward, probably after the county leaders have had a chance to meet this coming week (via phone or Zoom). Unlike Cuomo, who seems unable to mention any localities outside of his own litterbox, McMahon is quite happy to name-drop all the other constituent members of Greater CNY. In fact, I want to point out that this has been true of his briefings in general: unlike Cuomo, this guy frequently mentions all parts of New York State. We are often reminded of how much worse things are in New York City, or on Long Island or Westchester. Reminded of vulnerable rural hospitals in the North Country. Reminded of what other countries around the world are doing with testing and social distancing. Syracuse-area viewers get a better sense of what is happening “out there” than people typically do from the governor of this state. (And I hope people further out in Utica-Rome and Herkimer will get an opportunity to watch these daily briefings.)

The county officials and the hospitals have been thinking on exactly how to start up elective surgeries again, with some specifics ventured today that have not been heard previously. It sound as if elective surgery patients will be COVID-tested first, in the interests of conserving the heavy-duty PPE, so identifying surgery candidates will be a process in itself. As with everything, this requires state approval.

It seems that McMahon might have today been anticipating a question he never got — perhaps the “reopen” protests up in the North Country and in other states, none of which have happened around here. Today he started focusing in on the fact that, prior to the May 15 extension from Cuomo, both the White House and Cuomo had agreed on similar dates for social distancing to stay in effect (April 29 for Cuomo, April 30 for the White House). “Everybody’s interests are aligned here, no matter what your political ideology” — so we are exhorted to continue hunkering down for the rest of the month, with data deciding all.

The local media seemed inordinately concerned about golf courses again today. Basically, nobody really knows what the hell the ESDC guidance exactly is, and although McMahon gave a good shot at his own interpretation of what the new rules are, he sounded glad to be rid of responsibility for it. It’s not like golf in April around here is even normally a thing, people...

The shape of what this new CNY committee will be planning, seems very reasonable, and probably is aligned with what NYS would do everywhere if it could. That said, it is probably going to take a sustained level of social control, and unprecedented community solidarity, to get Central New York even a mile down this long road.

Saturday, April 18 update

I’ve decided to take a break from bashing Cuomo daily, so it’s a good thing he decided to take a break from being bashable. He is actually beginning to sound reasonable on the possibility of working out a regional upstate reopening, and nothing he had to say today sounded anything different than what sensible upstate leaders have been saying all along.

Marc Molinaro, who lost his father to COVID last week, received a call from the governor.

“We spoke, in fact, the day my father died. We just talked, two human beings, about the loss of fathers. I was very grateful for the call. It struck me only so many years ago all of New York, myself included, mourned the loss of his father. And of course, Governor Mario Cuomo was larger than life. My dad was just an ordinary guy and for one brief moment, the governor of the state of New York extended to me his sympathies. We just talked, two New Yorkers, about being tough and about the love of our dads. And funny enough, my father was probably most proud of me when I was running against Andrew Cuomo for governor. We laughed about that.”

In Watertown, there was a protest in favor of reopening. A tale of two photos:

Onondaga County update: The daily county briefing was a short one and not many media seemed to be present. The “active cases vs. recovered cases” continues to improve. An additional death was announced, bringing the county total to 18.

CE McMahon had little to say about that part of Cuomo’s new executive order seeming to limit the leeway of local governments, but this wasn’t surprising because typically McMahon expresses solidarity with Albany’s approach to the crisis and chooses words exceedingly carefully. Still, “counties have certain rights… I was elected for that, I take an oath for public safety.” However, the latest state ruling on golf courses seems as mystifying to him as it is to other observers; and in his view, all local golf course rules have now been superseded by NYS — and any disgruntled local golfers should wait for more state-led loosening of social distancing policy. “They injected themselves into this policy,” he said, adding (as always) that “we work really well with the state.”

I feel there isn’t anything inherent in the process of bringing together the CNY counties to work on a reopening plan, that would really conflict with anything Cuomo has said (particularly not today). Still, it has to be massively wearying to local leaders as they try to track the latest daily noises coming out of Albany and parsing out if they really mean anything relevant to them — or if it’s just more downstate infighting.

Lastly, a local story on the impact of the shutdown on CNY’s many unemployed.