Essex, Franklin counties: Stay home, don’t visit

Main Street, Lake Placid, as seen in the summer (News photo — Andy Flynn)

SARANAC LAKE — Essex and Franklin County officials are asking visitors to stay home and not travel here.

These rural counties largely rely on tourism revenue and have many second homes and vacation rental units. The directive comes as local officials try to encourage social distancing and self-quarantining to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19. There were four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Essex County and one in Franklin County as of press time Wednesday, March 25.

Both counties are also asking short-term vacation rental owners to remove listings from sites like Airbnb and Vrbo, and to stop renting out their properties. Anyone who doesn’t will be considered in violation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order canceling all non-essential gatherings.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday urged those passing through or leaving New York City to self-quarantine for two weeks. Cuomo has ordered all non-essential businesses to close, urged residents to stay home and directed the cancellation of all non-essential gatherings.

“Alarming influx”

“To date we have seen an alarming influx of travelers from outside the County who are staying at second homes and short term rentals, like Airbnb and Vrbo,” said a news release signed by Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland, sent Tuesday, and a nearly identical one sent Wednesday signed by Franklin County Legislature Chairman Donald Dabiew. “While you may be seeking refuge from the larger amount of cases downstate, you must be aware that this is a global pandemic. You and your families have a critical role to fulfill in halting the rapid spread of this virus, which can be dangerous and even fatal to the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.”

Gillilland and Dabiew said the “number of exposures will increase with the movement of non-residents” into their counties from other parts of the state and nation, “which will result in an inordinate strain upon the resources of public health, first responders, health care providers, our hospitals and other government personnel.

“We have few hospitals and those that we do have are not capable of handling an increased number of patients,” Gillilland and Dabiew wrote. “Additional needs presented with the increased presence of out-of-county persons at our hospitals will tax our medical care system beyond its capacity.”

Hospitals that serve Essex and Franklin County residents — such as Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone and the Elizabethtown Community Hospital — have restricted COVID-19 testing to inpatients in an effort to conserve testing materials, which are in short supply nationwide.

At the direction of the state, the hospitals have started expanding their intensive care unit and acute care capacity, but between the two, the number of available beds will likely still be fewer than 100. Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh and Samaritan Health hospital in Watertown collectively have 27 ICU beds, according to North Country Public Radio.

The state is now projecting a need for up to 140,000 hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, according to the New York Times, up from an expected 110,000 a few days ago. The state is expecting a need of up to 40,000 ICU beds.

Gillilland and Dabiew said most small businesses are closed, services are “severely constrained,” and even though local grocery stores are still open, there’s a “shortage of food and basic supplies.”

“As a vaccine does not exist, we have limited capacity to test, our hospitals are small and incapable of handling additional influx and our stores and infrastructure are incapable of providing supplies to a larger population, we are asking that you respect the integrity of our hospitals and infrastructure and not travel to Essex County from any area at this time,” Gillilland said. “This is in keeping with federal and state mandates that people stay at home and stay put. It is far better for you to stay home and limit your movements. You should not have an expectation that resources will be available to you here that are not available to you in your home town.”

Towns, villages

Lake Placid village Mayor Craig Randall has said “there’s no reason for people to come here.” North Elba town Supervisor Jay Rand encouraged visitors to “limit travel to essential only.” The town of Keene issued a statement last week asking out-of-town hikers not to travel there to hike the High Peaks, but instead to hike closer to home.

Wilmington Supervisor Roy Holzer has asked his town’s vacation rental owners to temporarily stop accepting reservations.

Randall has declared a state of emergency for the village, a mechanism that opens opportunities for emergency funding. Jay town Supervisor Archie Depo also declared a state of emergency this week.

Randall stressed that his village will continue to provide essential services such as electricity, water and sewer, road maintenance, law enforcement, and fire and rescue services. Randall said late charges for electric payments due in April are being waived, and shutoffs scheduled for next month are being pushed to May 15. The water-sewer and highway departments are working on split shifts to adhere to state recommended staffing levels.

Tupper Lake village Mayor Paul Maroun, who also serves as a Franklin County legislator, has urged visitors from out of town to self-isolate for 14 days before going to shops or other public places. Saranac Lake village Mayor Clyde Rabideau said he supports the current state recommendations but not additional ones.

Pence urges self-isolation

Pence on Tuesday said, “Anyone in the New York metropolitan area who has traveled: Our task force is encouraging you to monitor your temperature, be sensitive to symptoms, and we are asking anyone who has traveled out of the New York City metropolitan area to anywhere else in the country to self-isolate for 14 days.”

Public health officials at the local, state and federal level say the pandemic is expected to worsen in the coming weeks, but President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he wants to see the country “opened up” by Easter, just over two weeks from now. Trump has downplayed the outbreak. In February during an appearance with Fox News host Sean Hannity, he said “we pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” Later, he pointed to an unproven theory that warm weather could kill the virus, which was subsequently dismissed by the World Health Organization.

Governors take different approaches

Governors in different states have taken different approaches.

Cuomo has ordered all non-essential businesses to close, urged residents to stay home and directed the cancellation of all non-essential gatherings. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice have all issued “stay-at-home” orders. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all non-essential businesses to close and banned gatherings of more than 10 people until April 23. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker also ordered non-essential businesses to close.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has not ordered a statewide shutdown as of Wednesday. Instead, despite some state lawmakers urging a different approach, DeSantis has suggested restrictive measures for only the hardest-hit counties, according to the Associated Press. Earlier this week, he issued an executive order requiring New Yorkers visiting the state to self-isolate for two weeks.