TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tompkins County’s representatives in the state government, from both parties, have joined the growing calls to revoke Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s emergency COVID-19 powers after new revelations emerged about the state government’s handling of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes in New York.
The calls have gained momentum over the last few weeks, spurred on by two major developments: New York Attorney General Letitia James’ report on how the state government handled COVID-19 cases in nursing homes, issued on Jan. 28, and a New York Post story last week that top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa admitted the state had “froze” while reporting statistics of nursing home deaths to the federal government to avoid an investigation from the Justice Department, potentially ordered by former President Donald Trump. The state legislature had granted Cuomo sweeping, unprecedented powers to change local and state laws at his discretion during the throws of the early parts of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. They are set to expire on April 30 regardless.
James’ report found that the state had underreported nursing home deaths significantly during the pandemic—the James report showed around 15,000 deaths, the state had reported around 9,000 deaths. In New York, the state handles contact investigations and outbreak responses in nursing homes. Nursing homes have been the primary location of COVID-19 deaths in Tompkins County, particularly the Oak Hill Manor Nursing Home.
Predictably, Republicans have used the scandal to reignite their long-running claims of governmental overreach by Cuomo during the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in New York in March, with Cuomo’s New York On Pause announcement. Many of them make up Cuomo’s most vocal critics in state government, and have seized upon the state’s mishandling of nursing homes, which seems to have begun early in the pandemic when Cuomo ordered nursing home residents who tested positive for coronavirus to be returned to their living facilities. DeRosa’s admission appears to have vindicated those who have spent months calling for more transparency from Cuomo and criticizing his administration’s COVID-19 approach.
“This is a massive and unconscionable cover-up. Governor Cuomo and his inner circle need to be held accountable, on many levels, for their concealment, deception, whitewashing and worse. It’s time to immediately end government by Cuomo executive order, and it’s time to start every investigation that this deserves and demands. We should not be finding out the truth of this tragedy in nursing homes through leaks of secret Democrat-only meetings,” said State Senator Tom O’Mara, a Republican, in a statement published last week. He represents the district that includes Tompkins County in the State Senate.
The objections have not fallen along party lines, with Democrats joining Republicans more vocally over the last several days. That includes newly elected Anna Kelles, a former Tompkins County Legislature member who represents the state’s 125th District in the State Assembly, which includes much of Tompkins County. Kelles was sworn into office in early January, replacing longtime representative Barbara Lifton.
“The governor’s handling of the nursing home data is deeply troubling,” said Kelles, a Democrat, in a statement to The Ithaca Voice last week. “What we need more than anything right now from our elected officials is consistency, transparency, and accountability. It’s time to let the governor’s expanded executive powers expire and let our departments of health enact their long-designed plans for local vaccine rollout in partnership with the state.”