In the know: Dutchess County gears up for larger COVID-19 outbreak

Courtesy of Stanley Zimny via Flickr

The Hudson Valley stayed alert as New York City confirmed the state’s first case of COVID-19 in early March. Then a Westchester County man, who commutes to his Manhattan law firm, contracted the virus and subsequently infected his family, neighbor and others, marking the region’s first official contact with the novel strain of coronavirus. Two weeks later, counties across the valley have declared states of emergency, including Vassar’s own Dutchess County. The county now has 20 cases. After County Executive Marc Molinaro’s declaration on Friday, March 13, the county has worked to follow his directives to limit the virus’ spread and provide services to those most impacted by the pandemic. Here is everything we know so far about what Dutchess County, alongside the greater state of New York, is doing.

Starting Friday, the county suspended all large social and community gatherings, halted Dutchess County jail visitations, closed its eight Senior Friendship Centers and shuttered schools for two weeks. According to Dutchess spokeswoman Colleen Pillus, the county has not closed private daycare facilities, Head Start or other daycare programs. This is to ensure childcare for health care professionals, emergency responders, grocery store workers and others. They advise individuals who can keep their children home to do so. All residents should have alternative plans if daycares close.

The county continues to uphold its 20-person cap to all public gatherings, with local law enforcement and building and code enforcement officers carry out the rule, according to Pillus. On Monday, President Donald Trump advised against congregations of more than 10 people. The same day, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont announced a tri-state coalition to close all restaurants and bars for on-premise service. Instead, they will only operate through takeout and delivery. The states will also temporarily close movie theaters, gyms and casinos.

Small businesses have started bearing the economic brunt of fewer customers, with more hardship expected. The Small Business Administration now offers low-interest federal disaster loans to small businesses suffering due to the pandemic. The loans can be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, fees owed to suppliers and other bills that may be difficult to pay during closures and slowed business.

“Our small businesses are the lifeblood of our community,” Molinaro said in a press release. “This first wave of assistance from the federal government is essential to provide some stability to our businesses and not-for-profits struggling with cash flow.”

In the wake of these sweeping closures, Cuomo advised that only essential services and businesses stay open past 8 p.m. Essentials include medical facilities, pharmacies, gas stations and grocery stores.

Officials across the country have so far told the public that despite new restrictions, there currently is no threat to the food supply chain, and people can go about grocery shopping, ordering and taking out food as usual, with social distancing precautions in mind. However, the looming threat of potential infection has in no doubt affected the free mobility of at-risk populations, including the elderly, seeking out essential services.

Many national grocery store chains have worked towards establishing safe zones for vulnerable patrons. For example, Stop & Shop, which has four locations in Dutchess County, will open earlier, from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., to exclusively accommodate residents aged 60 or older. Home delivery services will also remain available, with bags left at doorsteps to avoid any unnecessary contact. The County’s Office For The Aging is also continuing its weekday Home Delivered Meal program.

Despite efforts, supply chain shortages have already hit the region. Two weeks ago, The Poughkeepsie Journal reported empty shelves of hand sanitizer, isopropyl alcohol, disinfectant wipes and face masks at various local stores. To combat unnecessary hoarding, Stop & Shop has placed purchase restrictions on key items, including those previously mentioned as well as fever-reducing medicine, bleach, disinfectant sprays, soap, bottled water and cleaning wipes. Cuomo has also deployed the New York National Guard to provide food and medical supplies to communities across the state, including some in Dutchess County.

Price gouging was anticipated to occur in the midst of a pandemic, with scammers and opportunists capitalizing off of public fear and confusion. To mitigate the impact, the New York State Division of Consumer Protection has established a hotline (1-800-697-1220) to report excessive prices on in-demand products. The Office of the New York State Attorney is also monitoring potential incidents of price gouging and has already shut down several operations pitching fake treatments for coronavirus.

The COVID-19 outbreak ushers in a time for both consumers and workers across Dutchess County and beyond. Cuomo has chosen to waive the seven-day wait period on unemployment benefits for people out of work due to the coronavirus. While schools will be closed to prevent the spread of the virus, staff will continue to be compensated in accordance with their collective bargaining agreements. Yesterday, City of Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison announced plans to move as many nonessential workers as possible to remote work. An initial round of nonessential city employees unable to perform remote work will go on paid leave for two weeks, effective today. A second round of paid leaves will begin on April 1. At the national level, the Trump administration and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin floated the idea of sending direct checks of $1,000+ to most American households.

As economic hardships grow, and the U.S. fears unemployment reaching 20 percent, public officials have recognized that some people may have difficulty paying their rents. New York State has halted all housing evictions indefinitely, as courts of law have suspended all nonessential functions. 

But for those who are currently facing homelessness, they are at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus. With an estimated 568,000 experiencing homelessness nationwide in 2019, government officials and advocates for the homeless are also concerned about the potential of infected people with nowhere to live speeding the virus’s spread. Dutchess is similarly concerned about the health, safety and public health risk of those experiencing homelessness in the county. Local officials are working with Hudson River Housing and Mental Health America to use the county’s now vacant Temporary Housing Units (PODS) as emergency shelters, according to Pillus. One type of POD contains separate male and female units. The other kind serves as a medical facility.

The PODS were built at the Dutchess County Jail site in 2015 to house inmates the county had originally boarded at other jails in the state. In addition to suspending all jail visitation, Pilius said that the county is also protecting current and new prisoners by screening incoming inmates for coronavirus symptoms.

The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly evolving and largely unpredictable, suggesting that additional or changed courses of action will likely be made at the local, state and national levels. For now, Dutchess County residents—like the rest of the nation—are asked to stay put and follow strict adherence to guidelines. Any questions about the coronavirus can also be directed to the newly set up Dutchess coronavirus hotline (845-486-3555). 

For continued coverage of the coronavirus by The Miscellany News, click on the link here and follow our social media pages.

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