CATSKILL — When the state announced a new mask mandate would take effect on Dec. 13 ordering all businesses to require guests to wear face coverings, it was left up to county health departments to enforce the new rules.
To give struggling counties a lift, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Monday that the state would be distributing $65 million to municipalities statewide to assist in efforts to enforce the mask mandate directive, which stipulates that businesses that are not in compliance could face fines of up to $1,000 per violation.
In Columbia County, Department of Health Director Jack Mabb said his agency had yet to receive any guidance on how the money might be implemented.
“I haven’t really received any word yet structurally on how that’s going to work,” Mabb said. “We have collectively, NYSACHO (New York State Association of County Health Officials), the organization I belong to, has consistently said, ‘You’re asking us to do a lot with the existing staff.’ So I think this is in response to that, but I haven’t heard any of the particulars about it yet. I would expect by the end of the week we’ll certainly hear.”
While it was not clear whether counties will have to apply or compete for their share of the funding, Greene County Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said the announcement reminded him of a 2015 initiative from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo that pitted upstate regions against each other for economic development funding.
“I thought Cuomo’s ‘Hunger Games’ were bad,” Linger said. “This is actually just doling out taxpayer money to those people who may agree with you. The governor said she would provide the funding to hire people, but that’s a problem when there’s the Great Recession going on and there are more jobs than there are employees to fill them. It doesn’t change the fact that we’re short-handed and we don’t have the resources to put people out there to do this. So we’re not going to be doing it.”
Linger noted that even with additional funding that Greene County Public Health would still face manpower issues.
“If they’re going to make things like PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) available like we had in the beginning of the pandemic where counties were handing it out, we’d certainly take that and give it out to our businesses,” he said. “But if this is a ploy to get people to go out there and enforce this at the county level, the resources just aren’t available. That doesn’t translate to money, that translates to people.”
Linger added that there are initiatives the county wants to undertake to combat COVID — if they had the staffing.
“I would love to run a vaccine booster clinic once a week or testing three of four days a week,” Linger said. “Those are all good things that we’d like to be able to do, but we don’t have the staffing for it.”
“We’re putting $65 million on the table to help counties associate with the costs for the protocols we put in place,” Hochul said in a press conference Monday. “I’m ensuring there’s at least $1 million available for the small counties and up to $2 million for the larger counties. They will be able to use this for creative ways, either for enforcement, or masks, or signs. We want to make sure that we pick up the costs for this.”
In her press conference, Hochul suggested some counties could use the funding to hire additional staff for mask mandate compliance checks or to set up call centers where residents could send in tips about businesses that are not in compliance with the rules.