We have heard the questions, annoyance and justified anger of residents at what they are seeing, and we share your concerns. To be frank, I am fed up with seeing people all across Rockland violate the common-sense social distancing guidelines from New York State. We want to offer you a clear explanation of everything that is happening locally and across our State because none has been forthcoming from any other source.
The Rockland Codes Initiative section of the Center for Codes Investigations in our County Health Department (RCI) is investigating all complaints regarding mass gatherings and school operations, as well as everyday complaints including garbage, non-compliant housing, etc., albeit these complaints have been dramatically reduced at this time.
RCI responds to COVID related complaints with a field visit when practicable and safe. All complaints are answered with at least a phone call when a field visit is unsafe. After an investigation, enforcement efforts by the RCI include issuance of a notice of violation, if it is based upon an illicit use of property, they post a notice closing the property. Fines of up to $2,000 per day, per violation, can be assessed.
During last year’s measles crisis, this violation and fine method was shown to be a deterrent on similar behavior. When schools were violating health orders, they came into compliance after being prosecuted by the Health Department. When we had autonomy of action, we were able to bring that outbreak to a halt.
If someone that receives a fine disputes it they can file an Article 78 proceeding in Supreme Court for court review of the proceeding.
County health inspectors are responding to the sites of complaints and contacting the appropriate Police Department to notify them of the findings, unless Police are already on site at the time of inspection. Unfortunately, the New York State District Attorney’s Association has recently determined that the District Attorney and the police cannot enforce Governor Cuomo’s orders.
The police have advised us that they cannot enforce rules, prohibiting gatherings, closing businesses, etc., that the DA’s Association has found to be mere, “helpful hints.” Which are a terrific thing when you are cleaning your kitchen with vinegar and lemon juice, but they are not helpful when fighting a pandemic. That’s right; the New York State DA’s Association found the Governor’s Orders to be mere suggestions.
The only levels of government that are capable of issuing emergency orders that are enforceable as a matter of law are City Mayors, County Executives, Town Supervisors, and Village Mayors. We are a nation of laws; this is what the law requires.
I am sure that these entities would protect their populace and follow the type of guidance the governor is giving in his orders. However, Executive Order 202.5 superseded localities ability to issue emergency orders related to COVID-19, a valid exercise of the Governor’s authority. Want to know why the shelves of your grocery store are bare? A local Emergency Order designed to stop that was suspended by the Governor.
On March 27, pursuant to that Executive Order, we submitted a request to the New York State Commissioner of Health (see attached) to obtain local authority to enforce the Governor Cuomo’s Executive Orders. That request was flat out denied (see attached).
We are now asking once again that Governor Cuomo and the New York State Commissioner of Health allow for local enforcement of the Governor’s Executive Orders. Not just for Rockland County but across our state, please give us the ability to ensure the health, safety and lives of our residents. In the meantime, we will be resubmitting our original request for a local Emergency Order which does allow for local enforcement by police agencies.
This situation has completely hamstrung law enforcement’s ability to enforce these orders. This has placed a significant burden on the County’s health inspectors, whose regular job does not include maintaining public order, a task they are not trained or equipped to handle.
Unlike the situation with schools, mass gatherings pose a more difficult situation for enforcement. In addition to the police being unable to break up gatherings without an enforceable rule, Governor Cuomo’s Executive Orders are not clear as to what kinds of gatherings are not permitted. The rule only states that “non-essential gatherings of individuals, for any reason, (e.g. parties, celebrations, or other social events) are canceled or postponed at this time. The definition of what is essential is left unexplained.
While Governor Cuomo has been receiving accolades from the general public regarding his handling of this crisis, and in general I agree, the vague language in his Executive Orders has left many people confused about what is allowed or not allowed. The guidance from the State has been inconclusive, and Governor Cuomo’s office has not given any specific guidance concerning places of worship, despite requests from at least two County Executives (including myself).
This uncertainty makes our government’s enforcement difficult because, despite the current crisis, the Constitution is still the foundation of our law, and the rights it provides still pertain, albeit with some limitations.
We are constantly thinking outside the box and trying to innovate and find new methods of enforcement for those who are not following the rules that slow the spread of the disease. While a large majority of people, from every community, are following common-sense and playing it safe, some are only interested in pushing the boundaries of the rules and looking for the grey area.
As we approach the Easter and Passover holidays this year needs to be different. We implore everyone in our community to heed the advice of health officials and stay home as much as possible to curb the spread of this virus and safeguard the wellbeing of our loved ones. These upcoming holiday meals should only be celebrated with the members of your immediate household.
Being unable to attend a wedding, funeral, religious service, family dinner or party may seem like the worst thing imaginable, but it may be the only way to save the life of a loved one or friend.
Some people are not following the spirit of social distancing, and some are outright flaunting the rules, but we are asking once again for those who are behaving this way to stop. Please, think about your relatives and neighbors and just stay away from each other. DO THE RIGHT THING.