New virus safety rules take effect

Julien McConnell, head trainer at The Warrior Factory Syracuse, swings through the gym’s obstacle course. Gyms statewide must close at 10 p.m. each night as part of the state’s new COVID-19 restrictions Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated by executive order this week. Katrina Tulloch/ktulloch syracuse.com

Local officials cast doubt Friday they will enforce the state’s new COVID-19 regulation limiting gatherings in private residences to 10 people — one of several new virus rules that went into effect Friday night, beginning a nighttime curfew for bars, gyms and restaurants to curb the spread of the disease.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared executive orders Friday mandating New York bars, gyms and restaurants close each night at 10 p.m. and limiting private house parties or gatherings to 10 people as COVID-19 cases increase in the state, mirroring a raging national virus surge and hospitalizations across the globe.

No more than 10 people will be allowed to gather in any private residence in the state, excluding legal residents of the dwelling, as house gatherings are expected to increase with the approaching Thanksgiving and holiday season through December.

“That is all a problem — we call it living room spread,” Cuomo said Friday afternoon during a conference call with reporters. “‘Well, I’m just with my family. My family would never infect me.’ Your family’s not in control of it. It’s not that they’re doing it intentionally, but your family is no safer than any other group of people.”

Primary enforcement of all of the governor’s executive orders and pandemic health rules rests with localities.

Governor’s office representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment Friday about the penalty for violating the private gatherings limit, who in the household is issued a summons and how much they will be fined.

Columbia County officials do not plan to police homes, Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell, R-Stockport, said.

“Columbia County officials have no intention of randomly monitoring people’s homes,” Murell said in a statement late Thursday afternoon. “We can only hope that this most recent action by New York State is as restrictive as it gets.

“It is up to all of us to wear our face masks, wash our hands, and social distance in an effort to keep the number of positive cases from rising,” Murell said in a statement.

Local officials agree the private residence gathering restriction will be difficult, if not nearly impossible, to enforce.

“Indoor gatherings that are limited to no more than 10 people is going to be very, very difficult to enforce given Fourth Amendment protections,” Hudson Police Chief L. Edward Moore said Friday. “So that’s something that is going to have to be handled differently.”

The Fourth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution protects people from unreasonable government searches or seizures.

Moore expects to enforce Cuomo’s new rule with verbal warnings first.

“If we get word of a private gathering, let’s say on Thanksgiving, that violates the executive order, then we would want to talk to the property owner, if they would allow us, and then give them a warning regarding the new mandate,” Moore said. “Everything should be approached with a certain degree of common sense and cooperation.”

Greene County Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, does not expect law enforcement to be involved in enforcing the 10-person capacity limit for private gatherings.

“I don’t see our sheriff’s department going in and kicking down somebody’s door because they have 15 people having Thanksgiving dinner,” Linger said. “Not a lot of it amounts to criminal behavior, but a health violation regulation. It’s similar to an open burn; it’s not generally a criminal offense, but a regulation violation issued by DEC.

“In private residences, there’s a big difference between a 1,000 square-foot apartment and a 5,000 square-foot home,” Linger said. “People need to remain vigilant as to how they conduct themselves when in both.”

Gyms, bars, restaurants or any State Liquor Authority-licensed establishments, such as a bowling alley, must close at 10 p.m. After 10 p.m., restaurants can do curbside food pick-up only.

SLA and state police task force inspectors observe violations and file a report reviewed by SLA counsel. Law enforcement can issue the business a summons, which could result in SLA charges or a suspension of the liquor license. Charges can lead to a fine or cancellation or revocation of the license.

SLA investigators in the field cannot suspend or revoke an establishment’s liquor license. The counsel will review each case of misconduct and make a recommendation to the SLA Board regarding a license suspension while charges are pending. A license is suspended until board members decide on sustained charges.

A licensee can challenge the charges at a hearing before an independent administrative law judge or settle charges through a conditional no-contest plea, or paying a fine and having the liquor license reinstated with conditions.

The maximum penalty for each violation is $10,000 or the suspension or revocation of a liquor license.

The state’s curfew on bars, restaurants and gyms aligns with New Jersey’s similar 10 p.m. limit for indoor dining announced Monday.

Some of the governor’s restrictions appear to be inconsistent, Linger said.

“It’s interesting the governor’s order is only in response to businesses licensed by the State Liquor Authority,” Linger said. “There’s some, I don’t know if I want to use the term ‘selective,’ enforcement — that’s the way it appears here.”

The new regulations could hurt local businesses, Linger said.

“We were not surprised to see it, but we’re not happy about it either,” he said. “Local businesses are certainly going to be hurt by it, they’re limited in the hours they’re allowed to operate and the methods they’re allowed to operate in.”

Cuomo will speak with five governors of neighboring Northeastern states over the weekend for the states to implement symmetrical COVID-19 guidelines to discourage residents from traveling across state lines for different restrictions.

The governor is expected to announce updates Sunday.

“We’re not going to make any changes today — we want to see what effect our policy changes we just made, if they have any effect over the weekend,” Cuomo said. “We’ll have a joint discussion over the weekend and then we’ll see where we are.”

Moore doubts establishments with a State Liquor Authority license, which allows a business to sell alcohol, will defy the curfew. Bars and restaurants obtain the same state license to serve alcoholic beverages.

Most Twin County bars and eateries are not open after 10 p.m.

“They are not going to want to lose their liquor license,” Moore said. “I think we’re probably going to get full cooperation from our businesses, that’s my prediction on that.”

Linger blamed the rise of COVID cases on fall activities.

“It’s a shame to see because our message from the county has not changed in this but people’s behavior has,” he said. “We certainly slowed the spread in Greene County for quite a lengthy period of time. Then we had schools open, Halloween parties, where larger groups get together in smaller spaces, and we’re seeing that spread.”

Hudson residents and visitors have largely complied with the state’s COVID regulations, Moore said.

“I will say that we have had a high degree of compliance in our small city — we’re very thankful for that,” Moore said. “I think that we’re going to go through this without a lot of issues. I’m pretty proud of how folks have stepped up to the plate.

“We’ve had instances of weddings and funerals and we’ve gone and given warnings, and folks have complied. That’s the approach that I’d like to take now.”

A COVID vaccine is on the horizon after drug maker Pfizer World Headquarters, based in Manhattan, announced Monday early tests on its experimental COVID-19 vaccine were 90% effective, and could be available by year’s end.

Cuomo reminded New Yorkers on Friday the vaccine will be prioritized to the elderly and essential workers first, and may take six to nine months after development to achieve wide distribution.

The governor raised concerns about coronavirus infections spiking when people crowd together in lines to receive the immunization.

“The vaccine is not here,” Cuomo said. “The vaccine is on the horizon and you cannot take this rate of increase and survive pending the arrival of a vaccine.”

The state conducted about 200,000 diagnostic COVID-19 tests Thursday — a daily record. The state’s positivity rate including microclusters was 2.6% Friday, down from 2.9% the day before.

New York’s infection rate is 2.2% without the oversample microcluster areas in parts of Rockland, Orange, Broome, Chemung, Onondoga, Erie and Monroe counties, and certain Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods. Microcluster zones had 4.5% new coronavirus infections Friday, down from 4.8%.

Twenty-four New Yorkers died from the virus Thursday — about flat for the last week.

Statewide hospitalizations continue to steadily increase to about 1,700 people with 30 more patients Friday.

Reporter Natasha Vaughn contributed to this report.

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