Dec 27, 2021
The Saranac Lake Riverside Park bear is seen here masking up on Sunday. (Enterprise photo — Lauren Yates)
Local counties wanting to uphold Gov. Kathy Hochul’s indoor mask mandate for businesses are finding it hard to do so, and county leaders say enforcing that mandate is impossible with such small public health departments.
The state has now put the responsibility of enforcing this mandate on county public health departments. It applies to businesses that aren’t requiring proof of vaccination to enter.
On Monday, Dec. 20, Hochul said the state’s money for enforcement would be “flowing immediately,” but Franklin and Essex county leaders said on Thursday they had yet to see what might actually be available from the state and that the state hasn’t fully communicated how counties can get it.
The governor said the state has $65 million to enforce the mask mandate, and smaller counties like Franklin and Essex are eligible for up to $1 million.
As many Republican counties in New York say they won’t enforce the mandate, the leaders of Franklin and Essex counties say they want to, but they are both taking passive roles in enforcement.
“We just don’t have the bandwidth to be able to do that,” Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman and Willsboro town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland said. “It’s up to the businesses to self-police.”
Gillilland said he’s been getting emails from some Essex County residents demanding that the county not enforce this mandate, but he said he will not “openly disobey the governor’s orders.”
“We all swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and I will continue to do that,” he said.
But Gillilland said with the resources they have now, there’s little more the mandate does at this time than give businesses the power to tell customers to wear masks.
“We have a small, rural public health department,” Gillilland said. “They are doing everything they can to keep their head above water trying to get shots in arms. … You have to pick your battles, and the best battle to fight this pandemic is getting people vaccinated, so that’s where we’re putting all of our energy.”
The message was the same from Franklin County.
“We don’t have any staff to enforce that kind of thing,” Franklin County Board of Legislators Chairman Donald Dabiew said. “Our public health is a part-time public health as it is, and they’re stretched to the limit.
“We’re hoping the people who go to these stores try to support their businesses by wearing their masks. There’s a lot of personal responsibility there.”
Dabiew said the county will focus on education.
Tupper Lake village Mayor and Franklin County Legislator Paul Maroun said the county health department is “overwhelmed” trying to keep up with
its quarantine-tracking, vaccine facilitating and data-crunching efforts. He said the current form of the mandate is not strong enough to be enforced.
“If the governor really wants to be serious, she’s got to put some more teeth into this thing,” Maroun said.
During last year’s mask mandate, he said he’d go down with village police officers to businesses when he heard complaints, telling them they’d have to close down if they didn’t adhere to the state mandate. But 20 minutes after leaving, he’d hear a complaint about the same business.
This time around, Maroun said it’s harder to enforce mask mandates almost two years into the pandemic.
Dabiew said the county board will discuss its enforcement plans further at a meeting on Tuesday.
He added that it’s harder to enforce now because people are tired of wearing masks and those against them are “fed up.”
In 2020, the state provided state troopers and investigators from multiple agencies to do “spot checks” at restaurants and bars, suspending liquor licenses and issuing summons.
Why wear a mask?
Essex County Health Department Program Coordinator Andrea Whitmarsh said masks are still essential to stopping the spread of the virus.
“If you’re going out in public you’re going to be exposed,” she said.
Vaccination offers protection, Whitmarsh said, but masks add another layer of protection, including for others who may or may not be vaccinated. Whitmarsh said the vaccines with boosters do a good job of keeping these people out of hospitals and morgues but the more layers of protection the better.
Masks are highly recommended indoors, where transmission of the virus is high, she said. In Essex County, she said there is “unprecedented spread” among households.
Outdoors, Whitmarsh said masks are not usually needed because the open air keeps COVID-19 particles from spreading to others. But she added that if there are dense crowds of mixed vaccination statuses, masks are still a good idea.
If someone has a complaint about a business not requiring masks, Gillilland said they should write to the business and tell them.
“To me, to a private business, the most powerful voice is a customer,” Gillilland said. “If the customer says, ‘Unless you start enforcing this you’ve lost my business,’ that probably has a lot of reverberation.”
Dabiew said if people are uncomfortable to shop at a place not requiring masks, shopping somewhere else would be safer and might send a message.
But he also said he’s seen more adherence to the mandate than he thought there would be.
He was in the Malone Walmart when the Enterprise called him on Thursday and said everyone he could see was wearing masks on their own.
Gillilland has faith most businesses are run by good people looking to do the right thing and follow the rules.
“The power of social suggestion is pretty powerful,” Gillilland said.
Hochul’s mask mandate will expire on Jan. 15 unless it is renewed before then.
Maroun plans to suggest Franklin County set up a portal for complaints about businesses not requiring masks. He said these complaints would need to get sent up the ladder to Albany, where there is more enforcement power.
Maroun said this tip line could direct state inspectors locally to investigate and said if businesses have licenses temporarily suspended, it would send the message that they need to start requiring masks.
Maroun said he’ll propose this at Tuesday’s board meeting.
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Both Franklin County and Essex County reported new COVID-19 deaths right before Christmas. The death in Essex …
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