ALBANY — A top Democrat weighed limiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s broadened emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic after the governor sent letters to select municipalities Wednesday threatening to withhold state funding unless the local officials effectively enforce state COVID-19 mandates.
The mandates are in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The state Department of Health sent a letter to government officials in New York City, Orange and Rockland counties, the town of Ramapo and adjoining village of Spring Valley in Rockland County on Wednesday requiring they enforce the state’s coronavirus mandates, including limiting crowds or capacity in buildings or at public gatherings and closing schools within cluster zones.
Not enforcing Cuomo’s COVID-19 executive mandates violates Section 16 of state Public Health Law, especially in “red zones,” or area hotspots, that have appeared over the last several weeks in Orange and Rockland counties and Brooklyn. State funding will be withheld from localities that fail to enforce the law, the governor said.
“If I had to do it over again, I would have taken over enforcement on day one,” Cuomo said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters. “The primary responsibility of the entire situation for local governments is enforcement. I don’t have the resources to do enforcement statewide.”
The downstate clusters and microclusters are largely attributed to religious gatherings and ceremonies recently held by scores of New Yorkers in the ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic Jewish communities.
“The enforcement from the local governments is very uneven, especially when it’s politically sensitive,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we’re running into with a lot of these ultra-Orthodox communities, who are also very politically powerful. Don’t kid yourself.”
Schools within a 2.5-mile radius of state hotspots, or microclusters, are ordered closed. Schools that have continued to operate also risk losing state aid and were sent a similar letter from the DOH on Wednesday.
“If they don’t, we will withhold funding,” Cuomo said of enforcement in school districts. “I don’t like to do that, budgets are tough all across the board. I don’t know how else to get them to actually do the enforcement they need to do.
“We’re withholding funding until the matter is resolved to our satisfaction,” he added. “We do not know at this time when that will be, but we are commencing holding funding from those schools. ... This is a last and final warning.”
Child care centers will be allowed to continue to operate within a school, but must be licensed and be inspected to ensure the entity is complying with state COVID-19 regulations.
The decision was met with criticism by state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, D-Queens.
“Is he going to label them anarchist jurisdictions, too?” Gianaris posted on Twitter minutes after the governor’s announcement Wednesday. “If this threat is implemented and desperately needed funds are withheld, the Legislature should reconvene immediately and revoke emergency powers.”
State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, attributed the decision to the state’s one-party Democratic rule in the Senate, Assembly and governorship.
“Thanks to a Democrat-controlled Legislature, which refuses to rescind Gov. Cuomo’s unbridled, unchecked powers, today the governor threatened to defund local governments that don’t follow his mandates,” Ortt said in a statement late Wednesday. “State aid to localities helps businesses, schools and residents across the state — all struggling to survive. Withholding local funding will only further raise taxes and is further evidence that it’s time to rescind the governor’s broad emergency powers.”
Cuomo expects COVID-19 microclusters and infection situations to continue for at least a year, or until a successful coronavirus vaccine is available to a majority of the state population.
The stricter coronavirus regulations will be reduced, or dropped, in areas after COVID-19 infections decline, the governor said.
“We can distinguish block by block, and we will,” Cuomo said. “So for those groups getting the numbers under control, God bless, and if the numbers are under control, we’ll reduce regulations. For the areas that are not, we will increase regulations.”