Caitlin Dewey

Western New York’s regional “control room” meets by phone for as long as an hour each day, opening with a briefing from Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul before officials trade local updates, case numbers and complaints.

The group, comprising 12 members from five Western New York counties, is officially tasked with “monitoring” and “adjusting” the region’s phased reopening plans. In its 156-page reopening guide, released May 15, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration described the regional control rooms as important “oversight institutions,” with the power to “slow or shut off reopening if indicators are problematic.”

But the governor’s surprise announcement Thursday that each of the state’s 10 regions would have to clear an extra hurdle before entering the plan’s second phase exposed a reality some observers had already suspected: Local and regional leaders have only nominal influence in reopening the state.

Several officials spoke out against the governor’s order, protesting what they called “an insult” and a subversion of “local input.” On Twitter, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a North Country Republican, accused Cuomo of ignoring the control rooms he created.

In Western New York, where the response among local officials has been more muted, control room members nevertheless acknowledged their role was an advisory one.

“Most of what we do is raise issues to the governor’s agenda to try to get them addressed,” said Jamestown Mayor Eddie Sundquist, a member of the Western New York control room.

“A lot of our things do get addressed fairly quickly,” he added. “We’re hoping that will continue.”

‘We have to have a regional control room’

Thousands of “non-essential” New York businesses have been “on pause” since March 22, when the state first mandated large-scale closures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Six weeks later, as the rates of both infection and hospitalization began to fall in parts of New York, Cuomo announced a regional, four-phase reopening plan titled “New York Forward.”

Under the plan, which launched May 15, regions could begin reopening businesses in certain low-risk industries, such as construction and agriculture, once they cleared seven thresholds related to hospital capacity, testing capacity, hospitalizations and deaths. Each region then became “eligible” for the next phase every two weeks, provided its numbers continued trending “in the right direction.”

On paper, control rooms were given the authority to monitor that data and determine if the process was going too fast. The more than 107 members of the state’s ten control rooms consist almost entirely of city and county officials, plus representatives from labor groups, economic development agencies and the Cuomo administration.

Each group receives daily, almost-real-time data from the state Department of Health on metrics including hospitalization rates, active contact tracers and available hospital beds. City and county leaders also pool additional data from their respective health departments, which do not count toward the state’s reopening thresholds, but can help local officials pinpoint flares.

“We have to have a regional control room that is monitoring all of these indicators,” Cuomo said during his April 28 briefing. “We have to have one central source that is monitoring all these dials, that hits the danger button so you could actually slow down the reopening.”

“You have to be able to pull the plug,” he added, two weeks later, discussing the control rooms again. “Or, slow down the increase in activity. That’s what we call the circuit breaker.”

But in reality, both control room members and state officials say, the groups’ role is a purely advisory one. According to the Committee on Open Government, a division of the New York State Department, control room calls are not subject to open meetings laws because they don’t set policy or make policy decisions.

Instead, the state dictates the metrics the control rooms monitor and sets thresholds for triggering a delay in phases. Control room members can raise questions about discrepancies in the data. They have also used the group as a forum to flag local concerns and enforcement issues, Sundquist said, such as large numbers of young adults gathering at Beaver Island State Park, or requests to reopen county campgrounds. The state responded in both cases, Sundquist added.

“It’s not the locals who determine when to reopen, it’s the state,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who also sits on the WNY task force. “If the state determines the numbers are bad, they won’t allow us to reopen. It’s as simple as that.”

‘All of this is a big question mark’

To many epidemiologists and public health experts, such a centralized, state-led approach makes sense. Covid-19 doesn’t respect municipal boundaries, and a flare-up in one city or county can contribute to wider regional spread.

But the governor’s announcement Thursday, which said “international experts” will be required to clear each region before it could move into phase two, has appeared to test cohesion between some state and local leaders and raised new questions about the role of the regional control groups.

Cuomo first announced the added standard Thursday on an Albany radio show, mere hours before five regions of upstate New York planned to reopen salons, offices and stores. They were allowed to proceed on Friday afternoon. But the move surprised a number of upstate officials, including control room members.

Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, a Republican and vocal Cuomo critic, accused the governor of turning local decisions over to “an international board.” Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon, a Democrat, told the Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse that the added hurdle never surfaced in that region’s control room, of which he is a member. Marc Molinaro, a former gubernatorial candidate and current Duchess County executive, wrote on Twitter that the name “control room” was a “misnomer.”

“It was understood by the people of this state, based upon the governor’s own comments, that … the Regional Control Room for (each) area would determine when they move on to subsequent phases,” said state Sen. Joseph Griffo, a Republican and the Senate’s deputy minority leader, in a statement. “Clearly, those words are ringing hollow today.”

Adding to the confusion Friday, the state also published to its reopening website a slate of additional “early monitoring” metrics, without specifying how that data would factor into reopening decisions. Hochul tweeted Friday afternoon that Western New York would be eligible to start phase two June 2 under the “necessary metrics,” but her office did not respond to questions Friday night about how the new early monitoring data would factor in.

Local officials, including Hochul, had previously expressed concern about a post-Memorial Day “spike” in new Covid-19 cases. Such a spike would not necessarily surface in hospitalization rates before June 2, but it would likely show up in early monitoring data, such as the percentage of positive Covid-19 tests.

“We’re going to have to base it on the data that we have,” said Sundquist, the Jamestown mayor, before the state published the new metrics. “And as we get closer to June 2, the control room may have more concerns. We just don’t know. All of this is a big question mark and we’re working with what we have.”

In general, Western New York officials have been more supportive of the control room system than some of their equivalents elsewhere. Sundquist said the group has been effective in getting local leaders on the same page and communicating concerns to Albany. Richard Lipsitz, the president of the WNY Area Labor Federation and another control room member, called it a “very hard-working group” that took seriously its charge to track Covid-19 data.

But Bill Hammond, the director of health policy at the right-leaning Empire Center, said the state still needs to be more “transparent” about who is behind reopening decisions. It makes sense for state officials to run the show, he added, but only if the public has full insight into the data and process.

“A lot of people are still going to the hospital and we need to maintain precautions,” Hammond said. “But if you’re not being transparent, it causes people to doubt the integrity of the system. Certainly people who are following this closely are aware of these questions.”

© 2020 The Buffalo News

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