Late Summer 2020, COVID-19 Clusters Swept Across Chemung County
An Excerpt of Chapter 5 of Our Darkest Hours: New York County Leadership and the COVID Pandemic
On March 4, 2020, our first organized meeting with the public health director, the sheriff, and six or seven people was held to review our emergency preparations in the event that COVID-19 ever came to our door. I wasn’t worried. China and New York City are a long way from the Southern Tier. We do have the headquarters of Corning Inc. here, and the company had a plant in Wuhan, so we were concerned about their folks flying from Wuhan to our regional airport. It turned out that the Corning employees who visited China had been tested, and no cases were reported.
Twelve days later, in an act of caution, we closed the schools. Our first positive case of COVID didn’t arrive until the end of March, and none of the 160 patients in our nursing homes were infected. By then, we were ready, with enough personal protective equipment. There was an uproar when the rumor spread that Governor Andrew Cuomo was going to take ventilators from our hospitals and move them to New York City, but fortunately that didn’t happen.
By August, I thought that we had dodged a bullet. Then there was a cluster of positive cases from a church in the town of Horseheads. The infections were traced back to six other upstate counties. We had an additional cluster at Elmira College.
Across the county, COVID-19 was ballooning out of control. We closed the college. Our hospital beds began filling up. People were still attending church in these mass gatherings until the governor designated us an orange zone, limiting gatherings to ten people and closing down indoor dining in our restaurants.
People were upset by the closings. I was worried that we’d run out of hospital beds, especially in the intensive care units, and I was haunted by the televised images from New York City of those refrigerator trucks holding the dead.
I’d heard that there was a mass of COVID-positive cases in the two state prisons in our county—Elmira and Southport Correctional. As county executive, the prisons are separate from our operations, but now we got involved. It ended up being over five hundred inmates out of the 890 in Elmira prison. That was bad enough, but after people visiting the prisoners left, they went to stores and visited friends and family, and the potential for spreading the virus was enormous. I ended up calling the governor’s office to say, “This isn’t going to work. We need to know how the prisons will quarantine people.”
Eventually, they closed down visitation, though I think the state could have done it sooner. We did so at the county jail, and we only had about a dozen cases there.
In the meantime, the county was suffering financially. With my long experience in government, I was accustomed to the ups and downs of budgets, but this was as bad as I’d ever seen. Our sales tax revenue was down; so was our revenue from hotels and motels and casinos. We made massive cuts, never easy given that so many of our expenditures are mandated by the state. We left over 120 positions vacant, canceled road projects, and took money from all forty departments in the 2020 budget. Our unemployment rate here is around 6.5 percent, which isn’t too bad. There are jobs available, but until the federal stimulus money runs out or people think they’re not going to get it anymore, you won’t see people going back to work. Overall though, it seems like there will be no end to our financial pain. Certainly, there are businesses that won’t survive or come back. The pandemic has so many tentacles. There are new challenges every day.
We received many complaints as understandably people were upset. The majority of them understood how tough a situation local government faced. We made sure to communicate the reasons for our decisions and to keep everyone informed. We held internal meetings five days a week. I’ve been with the county for over thirty years—sheriff for thirteen and the executive for the last two. In all of my time in government, I can count on one hand the number of times I’d spoken to the public health director. Now I was talking to Peter Buzzetti every day, and he was so good at his job that I felt the county was blessed to have him.
One of our ongoing challenges was making sure the less fortunate among us had access to food. Thirteen (13) percent of our eighty-eight thousand residents live below the poverty line. We leaned on our meals on wheels and the Food Bank of the Southern Tier. We worked with them through co-sponsored events throughout the summer. To this day, we have sites at the Fairgrounds for people to come and get what they need.
A bright spot was the frequent contact I had with other county executives thanks to the New York State Association of Counties. I spoke to my counterparts once or twice a week. We’re on a first-name basis, and we do what we can to help each other, and this wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic. Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t matter, not when the people who elected you are suffering.
Chris Moss currently serves as Chemung County Executive.
The New York State County Executives’ Association, in collaboration with NYSAC, presents stories of county leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, told by the County Executives who were on the ground leading the local response.
Our Darkest Hours: New York County Leadership & the COVID Pandemic, uses riveting first-person accounts to provide a glimpse into the fear, struggle, triumph, and pain that local leaders faced as they worked to protect their residents from an invisible and insidious enemy.
The book also provides a public policy account of the fractured federal and state response to COVID-19 and explores the economic impact of New York on Pause, the unprecedented expansion of state executive powers, and the diminution of local home rule. The Appendices include material relating to congressional actions, the state’s executive orders, and COVID cases/deaths by county from March 15, 2020 to March 15, 2021.
Our Darkest Hours: New York County Leadership and the COVID Pandemic is available for purchase from Archway Publishing and Amazon for $19.99 (softcover) and $37.95 (hardcover) and $4.99 (Kindle). All proceeds from the book will be donated to Feeding New York State, which supports the ten regional food banks that have been feeding the hardest hit New Yorkers.