October 22, 2021

Businesses react to county COVID enforcement announcement

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

Paul Heider, left, chairman of the Cortland County Legislature, announces on Wednesday the county will begin enforcing coronavirus measures after Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Cortland was a micro-cluster of high infection. Lisa Perfetti, right, interim public health director, said the county is also seeking increased testing resources.

Cortland County business owners said Wednesday afternoon they welcome enforcement of coronavirus guidelines. It beats the alternatives: closing the businesses.

Cortland County officials said earlier Wednesday they would begin enforcing coronavirus guidelines that require masks, social distancing and other measures to slow the spread of the virus.

By Wednesday evening, the state issued metrics to monitor hot spots. For a community the size of Cortland County, more severe restrictions would be enacted if:

  • The county reports an average of 15 or more cases per 100,000 people over seven days. Cortland reports between two and three times that amount, depending on whether one uses state or county tallies.
  • And if the number of positive COVID-19 tests exceeds 4% of the total tests in a seven-day rolling average for 10 days, for the lowest restrictions, a yellow zone. Or if it exceeds 6%, for the most severe restrictions, a red zone. State numbers show Cortland’s positivity for the past 10 days has ranged between 1.8% and 2.8%, but county figures say that rate ranges from 6% to 7.7%.

“If the county wants to help the governor keep everybody open, then I welcome it,” said Anthony Caruso, the owner of Hairy Tony’s and co-owner of A Pizza and More on Main Street in Cortland, the epicenter of more than 30 potential public exposures this month, and more than 40 since September.

“I welcome the constructive help because we are a whole in Cortland County and we all benefit from everybody following the rules,” Caruso said. A patron with coronavirus visited his restaurant Friday, leading to a potential public exposure.

Cortland County Legislature Chairman Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton) announced Wednesday that the county has created an enforcement team to follow up on complaints against businesses and if necessary, fine businesses and community members for not following state guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

That announcement comes as the county has seen 600 new cases since Aug. 21 and Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared the county a micro-cluster of coronavirus. However, during a briefing Wednesday, the governor didn’t designate the county as a cluster zone of red, orange or yellow — with red being the worst with more restrictions placed on the community and yellow having the least restrictions on communities.

The zones

Red Zone — Cluster itself
Houses of Worship: 25 percent capacity, 10 people maximum.
Mass Gatherings: Prohibited.
Businesses: Only essential businesses open.
Dining: Takeout only.
Schools: Closed, remote only.

Orange Zone — Warning zone
Houses of Worship: 33 percent capacity, 25 people maximum.
Mass Gatherings: 10 people maximum, indoor and outdoor.
Businesses: Closing high-risk non-essential businesses, such as gyms and personal care.
Dining: Outdoor dining only, 4 person maximum per table.
Schools: Closed, remote only.

Yellow Zone — Precautionary zone
Houses of Worship: 50 percent capacity.
Mass Gatherings: 25 people maximum, indoor and outdoor.
Businesses: Open.
Dining: Indoor and outdoor dining, 4 person maximum per table.
Schools: Open with mandatory weekly testing of students and teachers/staff for in-person settings.

To file a complaint

  • Call 833-789-0470
  • For a complaint against an employer: tinyurl.com/yy8brakr
  • For a complaint against a business or location: mylicense.custhelp.com/ app/ask

Cuomo said the increase in cases across the state has two reasons:

  • Lack of compliance with coronavirus guidelines.
  • Lack of enforcement.

“When people don’t comply, the local government has to enforce,” he said. “If you have no compliance and you have no enforcement, you know what you have? Spread. That’s it. There’s no rocket science here. How did it happen? People didn’t follow the rules, the government didn’t enforce the rules and now you have spread.”

However, some residents commented on Facebook and at least one legislator, Ron Van Dee (D-Cortland), have questioned where the county’s enforcement was as cases began rising. The spike began about the end of August.

“I again believe that when places are overcrowded, they can’t follow the rules that the Health Department is the one that should go in, it’s a health issue,” Van Dee said Oct. 9. “We’re not helping ourselves by letting people get away with this. We have to do something otherwise people are going to start dying in our county.”

Some of the new cases are from the return of SUNY Cortland students, but also more people having small gatherings, contributing to the spread, said Lisa Perfetti, the county’s interim public health director.

Heider said the enforcement team was only established when it needed to be.

“We brought out the enforcement team when we thought it was necessary in Cortland County, not before it was needed and not after it was needed,” he said. “It’s needed at this time. We’re not going to do any undercover stings or operations.”

Heider said complaints to the county that were deemed viable would be investigated.

“We’re not promising right now that we’re going to fine businesses,” he said.

Complaints against Cortland County businesses have increased over the last few months, although Heider said that not all were actual guideline violations: 17 complaints in July; 20 in August; 40 in September; and 32 by mid October.

Darris McDowell, the owner of Squeeze Juice Bar on Main Street in Cortland, said he’s doing everything he can to ensure he complies with the regulations. McDowell also said he only learned Wednesday of an Oct. 6 exposure at his business by a patron.

“I do what I can,” he said. “We try to sanitize as much as possible and make sure people are wearing masks.”

Managing Editor Todd R. McAdam contributed to this report.