ALBANY — New York localities with COVID-19 hotspots that fail to enforce the state’s mask wearing and social distancing orders could be fined $10,000 per day as violations continue, officials said Friday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed state Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker to issue a Section 16 order for local governments with COVID-19 hotspots to ensure localities enforce the governor’s coronavirus mandates, including requiring New Yorkers to remain socially distant, wear face masks in public when remaining six feet apart is not possible and restrict building capacity limits.
Localities that fail to enforce the legally binding public health measures could be fined penalties up to $10,000 per day, according to the governor’s office.
“It can be directed to any person or entity that is failing to protect the public health in the state,” Beth Garvey, the governor’s special counsel, said Friday during a conference call with reporters. “The violation of any order of the commissioner or public health law or rules can, when it is willful, be assessed a penalty up to $10,000.”
State DOH officials will issue charges to counties with COVID-19 hotspots where officials fail to enforce Cuomo’s executive orders.
The maximum $10,000 daily penalty is permissible under Section 12-b of state public health law.
“The Health Department would have to have certain information about compliance activities from local governments, what actions they are taking and if found to be deficient, they would present a statement of charges to that county,” Garvey explained Friday. “Continuing violations could be assessed that amount for each day they are not following through on their requirements to enforce.”
Zucker sent the order Friday to local governments with COVID-19 hotspots, including the targeted 20 ZIP codes in Orange and Rockland counties in the Mid-Hudson region and downstate metropolitan area, several Brooklyn neighborhoods in New York City and pockets of new infections in Nassau County on Long Island.
The order will set a threshold for governments to report enforcement activities and establish specific consequences for repeated failure to enforce the department’s health emergency regulations.
Officials in the state’s coronavirus task force have focused thousands of daily COVID-19 rapid tests each day this week to tackle the clusters of new infections and prevent a second wave across New York.
“That is the law, and if the local governments don’t step up the compliance, they will actually be in violation of the law and they can be fined,” Cuomo said during Friday’s call.
The Section 16 order comes on the heels of Cuomo pleading with officials for several months to enforce the state’s mask wearing and social distancing mandates.
“Please do the enforcement — we have to do the enforcement,” the governor nearly begged Friday. “These hot spot ZIP codes — the numbers are continuing to go up. That means by definition compliance is not where it needs to be. That’s the way the virus spread. They have to enforce the law. That’s what the state law says. That’s what the Section 16 notice will remind them: Enforce the law.”
The state developed a coronavirus enforcement task force this summer with State Liquor Authority investigators and state police officers to randomly inspect bars and restaurants statewide and issue violations.
Inspectors continue to revoke the state’s joint bar and liquor license from establishments that receive three violations.
“I have asked the local governments many times to actually do the compliance,” Cuomo said. “Compliance is not public education — it is enforcement. People know what the rules are and they’ve heard them every day. Local governments have to do enforcement. Whether or not it fits with their political agenda really is pointless. It’s the law and their job is to enforce the law.”
The governor implemented a similar measure during the height of the 2014-15 Ebola pandemic, he said, reiterating that enforcing health orders differ from a public education campaign to inform New Yorkers about them.
“We’ve spent millions on public education campaigns — we’ve run dozens of Public Service Announcements,” Cuomo said of state efforts to increase mask compliance among New Yorkers over the past six months. “You can’t find a New Yorker who doesn’t know they’re supposed to wear a mask. I’ll wager you.”
The state’s coronavirus positivity rate was 1.33% on Friday with 1,598 new cases of more than 119,493 tests conducted Thursday. The state’s infection rate outside the 20 hot spot ZIP codes is 1.03%, a slight increase from 0.98% on Thursday.
Seven New Yorkers died from the virus Thursday, down from 11 fatalities Wednesday.
As of Friday afternoon, 648 virus patients remain in hospitals in 38 counties — an increase of 36 patients. Hospitalizations have continued to increase over the past 12 days, and fluctuated around 500 patients last week.