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Monday, April 6: Through a Blog, Darkly

The post I wanted to have today isn’t quite finished, and I conveniently happen to have a crapload of old blog posts sitting around, so I thought I would bring some of them back from time to time to see if they have any light to shed on our current situation in CNY. Come with me down memory lane, in the glorious days when the Great Pumpkin held sway, just a couple of months before he scored one of the greatest own goals in American political history.

Spitzer was telling Upstate interests that he wasn’t going to speak for them – they were going to have to go to Albany and each individually field competitors in the Hunger Games. However, he did give the first (and only) “State of the Upstate” talk. At the time, I thought,

“Fight for your money” is going to have to be internalized by anyone who wants to get anything done in a general economic downturn. That goes for any terrific local ideas about free college for city students. Locally, money for initiatives is going to start drying up. Jim Walsh is leaving, and that means the pork faucet is being shut off. Private corporations will have less cash to promise. Alumni donations to universities will falter. Some people, unused to not having plenty of cash to burn, will move on to greener pastures. Now is the time when we’ll see who is really in it to win it, or just in it for the easy going. Nobody will win this fight unless they get out of their remote towers and engage their own people during the hard times, rather than retreating at the first sign of the money drying up.

Well, just 12 years later, here we are. There’s nowhere to run. And now the state of the Upstate is exactly the state of the Downstate. (Except, Jim Walsh is still around here somewhere. Ryan McMahon said the other week that he talked to him on the phone about leadership.)

Sunday, April 5 update

NYS update: I once again had to skip the actual Cuomo press conference, less for sanity reasons than for just being busy. It seems that NYC, like Syracuse, may be in a plateau zone — although their “plateau” is a hell of a lot more horrific than ours. Now the hot spots have moved out to Long Island and New Jersey, so the greater DNY region still is on the verge of drowning.

Today’s Post-Standard op-ed on the ventilator issue starts of with a mention of how Syracuse-area hospitals stood ready to help on 9/11. I remember the feelings I had when NYC suffered that catastrophe. Suddenly we really did feel like a family. Someone had hurt our big brother, and everyone felt eager to help. Then the crestfallen disbelief, and disappointment, and sadness, that we couldn’t help them because… there was nobody left to help. Everyone in the Twin Towers was dead. There wouldn’t be any emergency transports to our burn centers. The victims were just… gone.

But this isn’t quite the same situation – it’s even more hellish:

We are in no position to know if what Cuomo is requesting is a reasonable or unreasonable number. Information about the inventory, purchase and delivery of ventilators is opaque at the federal, state and local levels. For the public to understand it, all levels of government must be more transparent about what we have on hand, what the projected need is, how equipment will be allocated, and who is ultimately accountable for these decisions. In other words, we need to know how Albany plans to make sure a ventilator will be there when you, your father or your grandmother needs it.

As of this morning, Cuomo’s executive order still seemed to be missing. Nevertheless, some UNY hospitals are taking it seriously and are counting through their widow’s mites. (Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown stands ready to give up three of its 33 ventilators.) Although he claimed to know where the ventilators were in Thursday’s press conference, today Cuomo said he just wanted to be able to track them down.

And Rockland County’s CE wants to know where Cuomo is on his request to create a special containment zone on top of what Rockland already had.

Following Cuomo’s briefing, Day issued a statement asking “how in God’s name” were Cuomo and his staff unaware of his request. “Major news outlets, heavy social media coverage, along with a load of calls and emails to your office in support of this request, not to mention one of your staffers who actually saw it live,” Day said in a statement. “These responses strain credibility, and that is putting it mildly.”

Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior adviser and spokesman, called Day’s response “nonsensical.”

The containment area request encompasses a predominantly Orthodox Jewish area in Rockland. A detail which should make any alert person instinctively feel… Wow — just don’t go there.

Closer to home in Buffalo, the water is rising:

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases among seniors at the Father Baker Manor nursing home swelled from 17 to 39 Sunday. With the novel coronavirus sweeping through a population particularly susceptible to the disease, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz warned of hefty fines and possible imprisonment to non-essential businesses and individuals ignoring Governor Andrew Cuomo’s March 20 pause order.

Onondaga County update: While waiting for the 3 p.m. update to begin, I noticed a number of alerts scrolling on my Twitter ticker, concerning “possible contact alerts” relating to a few local drugstores and… crap… the Fairmount liquor store that I’d picked up an order of wine from, to bring to a family member, on Sunday the 29th. Fortunately, the possible contact dates were after Sunday, and I had opted for contact-free curbside delivery anyhow.

While unnerving to be reminded of the coronavirus actually being everywhere in the county (personally, I suspect that Fairmount, one of the densest suburbs in the county, has had community transmission for weeks), the real sign that things are getting real was the fact that there were four of these alerts on top of each other — something that hasn’t happened until now. Also a sign that things are getting real: Onondaga County has suffered its fifth fatality, the third in three days. The numbers given out today paint a picture of an infection wave that may be plateauing, and of an illness that is really grim and relentless. More hospitalized, more in ICU, no one discharged from hospital care today.

The county, after days of hinting that some kind of hammer was about to be dropped on store traffic, finally went ahead with it. The reluctance (or perhaps legal inability?) to tell the stores what to do is obvious, so what we’ve gotten is a shifting of the responsibility onto shoppers: a voluntary “shelter-in-place” for two weeks that asks people to essentially stay out of stores depending on their odd or even birth year and the day of the week. CE McMahon characterized this as “asking for more sacrifice” from the public, and the general tone of the briefing today was forceful and serious. This is the most unorthodox move that has been tried by the county so far (in fact, this may be the first order of this type in the state?), and people will either stupidly flout it, or buy into it. I don’t know if it will work, especially because the “rules” are a bit hard to remember.

But I’m not sure that is really the point: the point is to get people’s attention, by any means necessary. I’m in complete agreement with the gist of the move: “People are getting too comfortable with living with COVID-19.” Things have to get weirder before they get back to normal. (But will they ever completely get back to normal? The underlying message from CE McMahon has typically been “The sooner we succeed, the earlier things get back to normal.” Today, that message changed, very subtly, when he made reference to moving on toward “the new normal.”)

The other new news from today: Things will no longer be normal for golfers in Onondaga County, as golf courses now have been closed by executive order until April 28. (Except Green Lakes State Park’s golf course. The state, which had to approve this executive order, exempted its own courses.) It seems, from McMahon’s pointed comment that this decision was “data-driven,” that the sort of people who are addicted to golf are the sort of people who have been spreading coronavirus amongst themselves and the community. (It’s nice to know that it’s not just city kids wanting to play basketball who are being asked for “shared sacrifice.”) McMahon sounded particularly annoyed at those in more advantageous positions who haven’t lost their jobs, playing golf and stuff, and thus slowing down the return of the normal economy for those who have lost their jobs and are struggling.

“The next two weeks are big weeks. We’ll either be judged by history very well, or as a community that missed an opportunity.” Hopefully Syracuse can avoid the mistakes of its first pandemic, the second time around.

Friday, April 3: Release all prisoners

New York State is getting a lot of good press lately. Envious eyes across the country are turning in our direction and people in other states are openly wishing that they too had a President Cuomo. Maybe a strong government and high taxes are not so bad, if they can produce swift and coordinated results, like miraculously mass-produced hand sanitizer. But irony of ironies (there goes that anvil again), New York Clean is pretty dirty.

“We are problem solvers, state of New York, Empire State, progressive capital of the nation,” Cuomo said during a press conference, before opening a navy curtain and literally unveiling jugs of the “NYS Clean”-branded sanitizer, “made conveniently by the state of New York.” But according to workers at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York where the hand sanitizer is being “made,” as well as a spokesperson for the prison system, they are doing nothing more than taking existing hand sanitizer and rebottling it into packaging labeled “NYS Clean.”

This isn’t a freshly breaking story, and because events (and the virus) are moving so quickly, people outside of the state have moved on past their initial surprise that our state, allegedly the bluest diamond in the crown of liberalism, routinely uses (or abuses) prison labor and that those prisoners are freakishly required to buy their own hand sanitizer with the pennies that they earn. Or don’t get any at all.

Every day, says Donna Robinson, a bucket of bleachy water is delivered to a ward in Bedford Hills to be used by the sixty women housed there, her own daughter among them. That’s the extent of the supplies they receive to keep their area sanitized from COVID-19… “It’s batshit upside down crazy,” Robinson told hundreds of people during an online forum that RAPP conducted on March 25 to sound the alarm and organize to activate New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s clemency powers to “let them go.” “Here in western New York, when this scourge runs, they’re going to isolate them, put them in solitary,” Robinson said. “If there are deaths in droves, they’re going to have a Portable Mortality Unit; they’re not going to even send them to the hospital.” She added, “These are not garments to be thrown out. These are not garbage. They are human beings.”

And nobody cares about prisoners anyway, except their moms.

Laura Drum talks to her son every day on the phone. Recently, she’s had a simple message for him: “Take one day at a time and try your best [to] stay away from people. The best thing to do is isolate yourself.” But isolating yourself in a medium security prison is tough to do. Franklin Correctional Facility has more than a 1,100 inmates, many of whom sleep in rooms that can house up to 60 inmates each. Social distancing is nearly impossible. Drum is really worried about her son. Drum is 71 years old and has just been diagnosed with cancer. “I don’t want to die before he comes home,” she adds, beginning to cry. Her son’s parole hearing is set for next year.

It’s even really easy for liberal actual New Yorkers to skip past the equally dirty flip side of the reality of our prison system – our most despised essential workers, the prison guards. When not ignorable, they’re highly mockable, seen as uneducated rural hicks, probably all Trump supporters, live in decaying nothing-towns, and are likely personally morally vicious. They are everything that is bad and unredeemable.

Even if your personal view of prisoners and prison guards is the complete opposite of what I’ve just described, the coronavirus doesn’t give a shit. They’re all just new bodies to infect.

Andrew Hastings, a corrections officer at FCI Ray Brook, has been on a ventilator at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh since Wednesday. “He’s not doing great,” his sister-in-law Lisa Jimenez said. She said Hastings’ family is going through a very difficult time and that she is unhappy with the way the prison is being run. “They’re upset. He wasn’t considered an essential worker but a dispensable worker,” Jimenez said.

FCI Ray Brook is a federal facility and has chosen to deal with the situation with a lockdown. New York’s prison administrators have seemed paralyzed, only this week allowing corrections officers to wear masks on duty.

The potential for a horrific human rights catastrophe, hand in hand with the final destruction of some rural communities forced to be dependent on the prison system, cannot be understated. It’s the very worst manifestation of the profoundly dysfunctional relationship between all dimensions of “the New York family” — urban and rural, upstate and downstate, rich and poor — where do you even begin to untie this rat-king?

Calls for clemency for the increasingly elderly New York prison population was already a serious issue before the pandemic happened, and the issue will only be more in the spotlight as everyone moves forward. Will the twin problem of destitute rural communities trapped in the prison cycle also be addressed? As the virus is no respecter of persons, the leaders of New York have to be the same as they look toward rebuilding. Release all prisoners.

Thursday, April 2: The Taste of Now

I have never been able to understand the older generation’s obsession with milk. I don’t have any health or social issues against milk; I just think it’s kind of pointless when it’s not being used to create cheese or yogurt. But my mom’s generation can’t get enough of the stuff. The good news is (if you’re lucky to live near Cortland) you can suddenly now get milk delivered to your home by actual farmers who drive trucks and deliver your milk subscription to you. They call these people… milkmen.

“We’re pretty old-fashioned,” Branden Brown said. “So I love that old-fashioned simple mentality of home delivery. People are buying local now. We’ve always wanted to do it, but when was the right time? This is helping people right now. People are very forgiving if you don’t get it quite right. What better time to try it?” So, as of last week, the milkman returned to Cortland for the first time in years, offering home delivery for Trinity Valley’s milk and a host of other products.

It isn’t just milk that people want:

Local farms and slaughterhouses have experienced a surge of customers — M&M Meats in Batavia was even too busy to spend a few minutes on the phone to talk to The Daily News on a recent weekday. Owner Michelle Solpietro of the Warsaw Meat Packing Company, said she’s seen demand spike a lot for things she has in her freezers and coolers, as well as what she can order in.

For me, listening to people preaching about “localism” (in a vague sort of “I read it in a think piece” way) was always kind of like drinking a glass of milk: sort of bland, tasteless and white. Now that there may or may not be anything on the shelves at Wegmans — we’re all too scared to go see — having milk deliveries seems like a capital idea. Up with localism! Hooray for farm-to-doorstep delivery! It’s time for all of us to admit we were wrong, not just Cuomo. There’s something about the nothing on one’s grocery shelves that changes one’s opinions on food and supply chains pretty quick.

(Speaking of Wegmans, can it be possible that everyone’s favorite grocery chain is not putting its employees first? Rochester’s Rachel Barnhart, now a Monroe County legislator, has asked Wegs to allow its workers to wear PPE. Late on Wednesday, Wegmans finally agreed.)

We thought that farm co-ops would be mostly providing fresh fruit and vegetables for people in the “Old Future” (the 21st century that people imagined as recently as last month). Deliveries of milk and meat, maybe even flours and grains, weren’t touted as much. Those types of things were bound mainly for fancy farm-to-table restaurants in the Old Future, not for people’s home use. But these days, with everyone wondering if the coronavirus will come back around for seconds, is it possible that we actually saw Peak Restaurant in the year 2019? (Was the sheer amount of restaurants and heaping amounts of food being served in public even really… normal?)

Wednesday, April 1 update

NYS update: Today’s major news takeaway from Cuomo’s briefing was that, unfortunately, every single model that the state cares to look at points to the end of April as the end of our medical ordeal (maybe). Doesn’t matter if we run around outside naked or if we hide under our beds: the date is always the same. He got tough again by shutting down NYC playgrounds (something which was done in the state parks already). He also got philosophical.

As a society, beyond just this immediate situation, we should start looking forward to understand how this experience is going to change us, or how it should change us. Because this is going to be transformative on a personal basis, on a social basis, on a systems basis. We’re never going to be the same again. We’re not going to forget what happened here. When do we get back to normal? I don’t think we get back to normal. I think we get to a new normal. Our challenge is to make sure that transformation and change is positive and not negative… Why don’t we have medical supplies made in this country? Why are we shopping in China for basic medical supplies?

At this point, the irony is falling out of the skies like cartoon anvils each day. “New normal,” huh. Is this the same “new normal” that was sold to millions of New York citizens over the last forty years? You can either let your jaw drop to the floor in disbelief, or cautiously feel a sense of relief and vindication — that, wow, maybe somebody down there finally gets it, maybe the slightest inkling of realization is really beginning to seep in, that maybe it wasn’t the greatest idea in the world to economically abandon your own people and your own territory — the part of your state that had the factories, that had the workers, that had the inventors, that had the industrial researchers, that had the farms, that had everything you would have needed in this crisis right now. That maybe it was stupid to treat it like a burden when it was really a treasure.

Cuomo seemed chipper about the secret budget process, the details of which came through this evening and still includes the “old normal” trashing of Medicaid. Getting over normality is hard.

Onondaga County update: The daily 3 p.m. update has settled into a pattern, where CE McMahon brings on someone new for a very brief opening statement on a relevant topic (today, it was about our patriotic, state-riotic duty to complete the Census), and then “the numbers,” followed by What Happens When You Test Positive, which is always the same each day. This repetition is probably meant to reassure the nervous, and the nervous are getting nervous enough to call up the Health Department and yell at them, which makes McMahon very annoyed. Usually, Dr. Gupta then comes on to explain and re-explain What Happens When You Recover (the criteria by which one comes off isolation or quarantine). Each day there is also at least one Kids, Don’t Make Me Come Up There feature (today it was about Centro joyriders) and/or Mean Tweets, then Question Time, and of course, the Good News of the Day.

The numbers are opaque from a “flattening the curve” standpoint, but pretty clear on the human toll — there are fourteen people in the local hospitals in critical condition, which is terrible news. We seem to be stumbling toward thickest part of the fog here in CNY. At least our creepy-but-useful phone tracking grade is a solid B, which unfortunately is not what is going on in western New York at the moment.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m making fun of the daily show – on the contrary, I think the Onondaga County crew is knocking it out of the park with their communications. I am pretty impressed at how McMahon refuses to criticize local companies for putting out their own internal releases about positive employees, which is what has been producing the nasty calls from the public to the Health Department, and puts him in the position of having to explain the county’s contact tracing process every single damn day. There’s never an air of “why are you making my life difficult” in these briefings, and that’s very helpful.

I’m usually impatient for Question Time, not because I think the reporters always have great questions (they’re just trying to write vivid stories out of the same basic message every day), but because everything that Cuomo is ruminating about in terms of changing business-as-usual, everything that’s being discussed about inter-hospital and inter-regional cooperation, is also up for debate here on the local level. What should Syracuse and Onondaga County be in the future? Is there a greater CNY that has its natural capital here? Should upstate New York really be considered a monolith any more? (I for one, am growing increasingly shocked at the yawning differences between WNY and CNY during this crisis, on different levels.)

It’s refreshing to look past the immediate crisis in the Q&A sessions and think about these issues. The 21st century is not going to look like what we thought it would, just a few short weeks ago.