TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—In Tompkins County, the coronavirus pandemic started in earnest on Friday, March 13. That’s when County Administrator Jason Molino held a Friday evening press conference at the Department of Health building to announce that he was declaring a state of emergency.

When the pandemic began in March, Molino was able to make declarations such as the one at that press conference. But over the spring, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ruled that leaders in municipalities in New York State had to get their executive orders approved by the state’s Department of Health. Molino said the county has no executive orders awaiting Department of Health approval currently. This means that any shutdown order, in the near future at least, would be coming from Cuomo instead of from Molino.

But further restrictions are likely, Molino said, indicated by Cuomo’s latest press conference that stated rising hospitalization rates over the next five days would lead to a spate of new restrictions—including a reduction of allowable in-person dining. That’s aimed at trying to soften the burden on local hospital systems. Even so, with cases trending as they are, Molino said something reminiscent of a more widespread economic shutdown—like the NY On Pause action in spring—could still happen.

“I can tell you that if the trajectory of cases continues to grow, the way it has, over this next week, I would think that there would be either stay at home orders or some further restrictions from the state,” Molino said. “That will be inevitable if cases continue to rise. It may be, at this point in time, impossible to avoid that right now, because most of it has to do with the holiday weekend.”

The holiday weekend and associated travel have been largely blamed for the recent spike in Tompkins County cases. A domino effect could be on the horizon, Molino noted, as the ongoing Thanksgiving surge creeps closer and closer to the holidays around the turn of the year, which could then in turn propel a surge in cases that would last into mid-January or even early February. There’s still a chance to mitigate those latter potential surges, Molino said, but the state may take action beforehand.

At that March press conference, Ithaca City School District Superintendent Luvelle Brown also announced that the district’s school’s would be closing their classrooms and moving to distance learning, as did TST-BOCES Chairman Jeffrey Mattison for other schools in the county. At least on a similarly mass scale, that seems unlikely to reoccur since school re-openings have proven so crucial to any economic recovery and having students in classrooms doesn’t appear to lead to mass infection events.

“The shutdown was detrimental to the economy locally, as it was across the state, and obviously that’s something we don’t want to see happen,” Molino said. “We also want to be able to be well-positioned to have a safe place and environment for our students to come back in late January and early February, so I wouldn’t want to see anything impact that decision making because it’s an important part of the local community and economy.”

County operations would likely be much smoother than they were in March and April as county workers have been able to adapt to remote work and are more experienced now than when the county’s offices were first closed.

But despite the changing information, the overarching message remains ominously the same.

“Everybody talks about enforcement as being the key to this, the truth of the matter is that people just need to be responsible for themselves and for other folks,” Molino said. “What people are forgetting is when (you) don’t wear a mask, you’re putting other people at risk. That’s been our communication to the public and that continues. (…) I don’t think anybody likes that lifestyle, but unfortunately it’s what we have to do to get through this next phase of the disease locally.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com