Town and Putnam continue clash on move to reopen
As Putnam County lawmakers push to reopen after a two-month lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Philipstown officials are pushing back, accusing county officials of proceeding without adequate testing, follow-up and planning.
“In the rush to reopen we are going to prolong the outbreak, cause more suffering and death and do more damage to the economy in the long run,” Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea said on Tuesday (May 12). He urged the county to only act after preparing a thorough plan that includes public testing and the tracing of contacts of those infected. “To date we have neither in Putnam,” he said.
While five regions in the state have met the criteria to begin Phase 1 reopening, which allows construction and manufacturing with safeguards, the Mid-Hudson, which includes Putnam and Dutchess, has met only five of the seven benchmarks.
Tensions rose after the county on May 6 published an advertisement in official county newspapers such as the Putnam County News & Recorder promoting a return to business as usual. “We rise together!” it proclaimed. “Putnam county [is] ready to reopen.”
The ad said it was a message from County Executive MaryEllen Odell and the Legislature. The same day, Odell wrote to state Sen. Peter Harckham, whose district includes eastern Putnam, arguing that “we should be allowed to safely reopen” to address “the immense economic toll this [shutdown] is taking.”
The next day, when the Town Board met via teleconference, Shea objected to Odell’s letter. “I wish the county executive had reached out to the townships” first, he said. “Don’t speak on our behalf until you have our blessing.”
Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown on the Legislature and attended the Town Board meeting, said that although the county issued the “ready to open” ad in the name of the Legislature, she never approved it. She is the sole Democratic legislator; the others are Republicans, as is Odell. “This is democracy that has failed us,” Montgomery said of the county approach. “We don’t meet the criteria for opening. We are not ready.”
Odell told Harckham May 6 that Putnam had “been able to handle the number of positive cases we have encountered” and that, “moving forward, I believe we will be able to ease constraints without seeing a surge in exposures and positive cases.”
According to the latest data, as of Thursday (May 14), Putnam County had 1,115 confirmed COVID cases and 56 county residents had died. The county had tested 6,023 residents, of which 18.5 percent were positive.
Shea observed May 7 that only about 5 percent of Putnam’s population of about 99,000 people had been tested. The crisis is “far from over here,” he said.
The debate occurred as Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Odell and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro to a regional reopening committee whose other members include the county executives of Ulster, Orange, and Sullivan, as well as those in Westchester and Rockland, which are closer to New York City. Odell and Molinaro have contended that Putnam and Dutchess should not be grouped with counties to the south.
As the discussion continued, Putnam County Sheriff Robert Langley Jr. concurred with Montgomery and others who claim Philipstown needs more intense policing to cope with tourism amid the pandemic.
Odell agreed in her May 6 letter that social distancing — keeping at least 6 feet between individuals outside the home — and using “all other preventive measures to flatten the curve was completely necessary for public health and safety.” Nonetheless, she stated, it appears that now “we can make the move to safely ease social isolation, get people back to work” and restore the economy.
Shea, who owns a construction business, remarked that “about 90 percent of my crew is laid off” because of the shutdown. “I understand that businesses are suffering,” he said May 7. Nonetheless, he continued, “a hasty return to our former activities is going to be a hasty return to a spike in cases and a lot more suffering. If you don’t have your health, if you’re dead, it doesn’t matter how the economy is doing.”
Shea noted that the county, through Montgomery, had given Philipstown protective masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, in “a good turn for us.” He also praised state park officials for shutting down trails. On a recent weekend, he said 6,000 visitors had come to Philipstown. “It just makes for a lot of friction and a lot of unnecessary risks,” he said.
The supervisor and Town Board Member Robert Flaherty said that the presence of officers from various law-enforcement agencies has increased along Route 9D. “They’re not putting up with any nonsense,” Shea said.
But concerns remain, especially about visitors who crowd sidewalks in Cold Spring while failing to wear masks or practice social distancing.
“If people are unwilling to do the very least to protect not only themselves but our residents, then they need to take their act somewhere else,” Shea said Tuesday. “If you are jeopardizing your own health you are jeopardizing everyone’s health. And that is unacceptable.”
Langley, a Philipstown resident, empathized with residents who feel overwhelmed. They “have a right to ask that visitors to their village obey orders” from the state, he said on May. 8. “And they look to law enforcement to enforce those orders. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources needed to do so.”
He explained Putnam County spreads over nearly 250 square miles and his department has six patrol cars, each with one deputy. They cover Nelsonville (where the department has a substation), back up the Cold Spring Police Department and assist forces in Kent, Brewster and Carmel, he said.
According to the sheriff, from 8 a.m. to midnight, one car each patrols Patterson, Southeast, Philipstown and Putnam Valley, while the fifth and sixth cars “float” between Patterson and Southeast and Philipstown and Putnam Valley, respectively. These four towns have a combined population of 51,365 and take up 162 square miles, Langley said.
“This breaks down to one officer for every 8,560 people,” he said. “Not only would Cold Spring benefit from having more patrols in that area, so would all of Putnam County.”
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