Covid-19 arrived in the Hudson Valley last spring. Now a second coronavirus wave is making its way across the U.S. After a summer of relative containment, some local municipal leaders are worried about the ravages of the pandemic now that colder temperatures are keeping people indoors.
“What I’m seeing, what I’m observing from the conversations that I’ve had, the infections are coming from inside the family unit,” said Ulster Town Supervisor James E. Quigley, III. “They’re not like they were in the spring, where they were coming from general population and social interactions, okay. This one is going to be extremely difficult to control.”
Community officials from Woodstock, the Town of Ulster, Saugerties and New Paltz said they’re getting the message out as best they can. It’s not a complicated message. But following it up is not easy, particularly at the time of the holidays. People seem to be letting their guard down.
As of November 29, Ulster County had 928 active Covid-19 cases, more than double the 402 active cases just two weeks earlier. In the spring before the curve began to flatten, Ulster County peaked with 1009 active cases on April 26.
Starting from the beginning of the pandemic, Ulster County has had 3441 total confirmed cases, with 102 fatalities. Municipal leaders are particularly concerned about the holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are seeing some members of the community let their guard down.
Woodstock Supervisor Bill McKenna is delivering much the same message as he did in the spring. “March seems like a decade ago, it’s even hard to remember back, but I would say that the message is pretty much the same,” McKenna said. “I think it’s just delivered with more confidence, and it’s really: wear a mask, socially distance and wash your hands. And it’s simple. That’s how simple it is.”
Woodstock has reported no fatalities due to Covid-19, with 51 confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic and eight active cases as of press time.
“I’m very fortunate here in Woodstock,” McKenna said. “We have a slightly older population, well-educated, very health-conscious, and the residents got the message that they needed to be careful, that they needed to isolate, that they needed to wear masks.”
Difficult to control
Not everyone has gotten the message. “We’ve got our rebels and our free-thinkers who just don’t want to be told what to do,” McKenna said. “And so there’s just absolutely no hope for them. But they’re a minority.”
With so many second homes and rental properties, Woodstock could have been hit hard by spread from visitors, but McKenna said that wasn’t the case. “I would say by and large the tourists were great,” he said. “You know, a lot of them were coming from the city where they saw how bad this could be. And most of them did wear masks, or at least had them if they couldn’t socially distance.”
With an aging population, the Town of Ulster has been hit hard by the coronavirus with 348 confirmed cases, including 52 active cases. It has reported 41 fatalities, many at nursing homes.
Quigley said that the town will redouble its safety protocols. Over the weekend, it was announced that town offices will only be open to the public on Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the month of December, with security at the front door to enforce Covid-19 protocols. The highway department, building department and assessor’s office are closed to the public except by appointment. Court will remain in effect, also with coronavirus protocols in place.
In some cases, court will make accommodations as was the case on November 10 when Saugerties residents Joseph Barton and Paula Gloria Barton appeared outdoors before Ulster Town Justice Marsha Weiss because they and roughly 30 supporters refused to wear masks. The Bartons were arrested and charged with trespassing on October 21 after entering Mother Earth in Kings Mall without masks and refusing to leave. Quigley said it was the third time the Bartons had been asked to wear a mask in Mother Earth or leave.
“They had court in the parking lot at the picnic table,” Quigley said. “I’ve got to say, my judges are accommodating. They’ve been working with people.”
Quigley said that he’s concerned that people may be exposing themselves to risk more, being less careful. “I think that in the spring, the newness of the experience, people are social distancing,” he said. “We all lived through that and nothing happened, so our guards are down. Look, this is America, and everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. We have a wide range of opinions and intelligence within this country. But I am just flabbergasted; an article that I saw today was that from a nurse in the medical field in North Dakota, that people who have Covid are still denying that it exists. And this is what’s killing everyone. I mean, it’s frustrating. Let me just leave it at that: It’s very frustrating.”
Patience and education
Saugerties has had 222 cases of Covid-19 infection, including 73 current cases. Thus far, Saugerties has reported two fatalities. Supervisor Fred Costello tested positive for Covid-19 last week and is quarantining at home with no symptoms. This past week, Poughkeepsie mayor Rob Rolison also announced he had tested positive.
Costello said that much of 2020 has been consumed by the pandemic, developing protocols and ensuring as many people as possible are taking them seriously. “It requires patience and education,” Costello said, adding, “We spend time doing that, and it prevents us from spending time doing things that we would like to do on behalf of our residents. It’s been extraordinarily challenging.”
Costello spoke of the impact of the pandemic on Saugerties beyond what shows up in the Ulster County Covid-19 dashboard. “This has affected our psyche in so many ways,” Costello said. “The collective togetherness we feel by doing Christmas in the village to gather, organizing first responders and families and business community in a celebratory way, and not celebrating that has an impact. Not welcoming tens of thousands of visitors to Saugerties to celebrate the Garlic Festival impacts our psyche, and it negatively impacts the organizations that rely on those revenues.”
Despite concerns about the impact of Covid’s second wave, the Saugerties community is more able to understand how to keep themselves safe and everyone around them safe. Despite concerns about the impact of Covid’s second wave, Costello reiterated, the community is better equipped to understand how to protect itself.
“It’s comprehensive, and it impacts almost every dimension of what we consider to be normal and how we might feel,” Costello explained. “So there’s certainly a lot of people experiencing emotions related to the changes that we’ve had to adjust to because of Covid. And it’s not over. I mean, we’re entering the holiday season, and clearly we’re not going to be able to celebrate the holidays in a way that is representative of how we’ve done it. Traditionally, our [college] students are coming home from school, and rather than that being a point of excitement for many people is a point of concern, especially as we watch the positivity rate creep closer and closer to three percent.”
People are not powerless in their efforts to suppress the spread, Costello said. We know if we wear a mask, if we wash our hands, if we social distance, if we don’t gather in large groups, we can stop the community spread of the virus. We can participate in controlling the spread, and I think that makes our job as community leaders a little bit easier because we’re basically reminding people to do the things that have made us successful to this point. As we’re forced indoors, as we’re going into the holidays where we want to be with our friends and families, we just have to acknowledge that we can’t do that in the same way that we have in years past.”
Education and cooperation are the best route. “We’ve gotten good responses when we’ve been able to meet and educate residents or resident businesses, and we’ve gotten tremendous cooperation, and that’s in everyone’s interest,” Costello said. “Public safety at this point is the primary concern. We have resources available to us and we’ll use the heavy enforcement measures that are available to us if we have to, but we make every effort not to go that route.”
New Paltz currently has 121 active Covid-19 cases. It’s had a total of 254 confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic with seven reported fatalities. Town Supervisor Neil Bettez and Village Mayor Tim Rogers spoke about the pandemic in a community which also has the State University of New York at New Paltz within its boundaries.
While SUNY New Paltz will join the other SUNY schools across the state in shifting to fully remote learning until the start of the spring semester early next year, Bettez said the college may have suffered from some public misconceptions at the start of the fall semester.
“People in the town would see maybe a half-dozen students sitting on their porch and, you know, having a small party, and they said, ‘Well, you know, you’re not supposed to do that,’” Bettez said. “Well, that’s their family, right. I think part of it was people coming to realize that, you know, every group or pod is not necessarily parents and their children; it’s students. And so their pod was maybe their roommates in communal houses.”
Bettez said it was a lesson he himself had to learn.
“I would hear the students were having parties maybe in September when they all came back (to school) and one night I heard ten parties, you know, near my block. But when I walked around, it was small groups, five, ten people that were sitting in their backyards hanging out. And I kind of was thinking, ‘That’s exactly what I’m doing with my friends.’ Right. And so I had to kinda put the judgment aside. Yes, I think that the numbers have gone up [at SUNY], as things have gotten colder and they’re going inside. But I don’t think it’s any different than what we’re seeing across the community.”
According to SUNY’s Covid-19 tracker, SUNY New Paltz has had an estimated 74 positive cases since the start of the pandemic, including 31 found through campus administered testing. The numbers are below the threshold of 100 positives to trigger remote learning, though the school is currently on remote learning, along with all other SUNY schools.
Rogers said he believes the college has done a good job compared to others within the SUNY system because of its approach to the pandemic. “I think that the college administration and the students on campus have taken this very seriously, and that’s probably why New Paltz stayed open whereas some colleges, including Oneonta, had to close early and moved to all remote,” Rogers said. “I think the community and the students get it, and people are doing the best they can.”
Bettez said that the town has tried to recognize that it might be easier to get people to comply to protocols if they give them something to do beyond staying indoors. Over the summer, New Paltz opened its municipal pool following guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control. “I think it helped a lot of people get through the summer,” he said. “I had several people tell me that this was the only reason my kid, you know, didn’t go crazy. Like they were able to come here and it felt like a normal summer.”
Bettez said a socially distanced Halloween event with tables around the village was also helpful, and as the cold of winter approaches, New Paltz will be creating other opportunities for safe family fun, like caroling or a virtual New Year’s Eve celebration. Much will depend upon how the pandemic spreads over the next few weeks. And, Bettez added, that in turn will depend upon the community not being complacent, coming together and following Covid-19 protocols.
“You hear about (infection rates in) Minnesota, Wyoming, South Dakota, and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s them now, not us, because we’ve been so vigilant,’” he said. “And I kind of remind people, you don’t build up credit for having worn a mask for six months. Every day’s a new day, you go into someone’s house and you’re not wearing a mask, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done for six months. Every day we wake up, the day starts over again. And your chances of getting sick are just as much as they were the last time. People need to be reminded.”
Local municipalities are reminding their constituents to remain vigilant in spite of pandemic fatigue and the news that vaccines to stop Covid-19 are on the near horizon. “I am ever the optimist, and I see now there are three very promising vaccines out there,” said McKenna. “I think we’re so close. And I think people just need to be patient be smart, wear masks, and limit contact.”