EDITORIAL: Waiting for the virus

TUESDAY NIGHT IN CHATHAM, walking the dog. A family–parents and a handful of kids–strolls by. Two of the kids kick a soccer ball back and forth on the pavement. A car with super-bass sound system rumbles past. The kids with the soccer ball move to the sidewalk. These days you’d call this a lot of action.

Earlier that day the Columbia County Department of Health issued this terse report: “As of 3:30 p.m. on March 17, 2020, Columbia County has 0 positive cases of COVID-19, 4 individuals under mandatory quarantine, 22 individuals under precautionary quarantine. We have received 32 test results completed for Columbia County residents, all with negative results. We continue to work closely with our local healthcare partners and community members on a case by case basis to evaluate testing criteria as issued by the CDC and NYSDOH.”

It’s hard to process such momentarily positive news. Those 32 tests are in a county of nearly 60,000 residents. Not a very complete statistical picture. Don’t blame the health department. Look to the White House for that. Even in the absence of diagnosed cases here, schools are closed now and businesses are locking their doors or cutting back to judge from an unscientific look at local storefronts and a sampling of local business email traffic.

Local and state agencies are scrambling to make sure kids and adults who depend on public assistance in the best of times get enough to eat. This morning a school bus stopped on Route 66 with only its emergency lights blinking, not its traffic-stopping flashers. Motorists were bewildered. Then the bus driver got out with a bag of food and walked toward a modest home. The traffic moved on. How we live is changing.

Governor Cuomo, the Assembly and state Senate have put together economic relief programs and expanded health services and the technology to cope with the pandemic. But even before the worst of this year’s battle with COVID-19 slows down, the state budget will have to be balanced, at least on paper. The governor said this week that we cannot fight the disease and its economic disruptions without federal help. It’s what we pay our taxes for.

This week, instead of our countywide Events Calendar we’re publishing a list of Cancellations and Postponements where readers usually find the calendar listings. We’ll keep it as current as we can; we’re looking at everything people send us. We posted an earlier version online and will update the new list on columbiapaper.com Thursday afternoon, March 19.

If readers want to suggest other ways we can help the public navigate this uncertain time, we’d appreciate hearing from you. We’d like to share your ideas with others. Send them to and include your phone number.

We’re as susceptible to COVID-19 as any other business. Like you, all of us here know we have to wash our hands, sneeze into our sleeves, try to avoid touching our faces, stay home if we’re sick and maintain a “social distance” of 6’ from others. Beyond those civic duties, we see no evidence pandemics boost advertising revenue. Experience so far leads to the opposite conclusion.

The national effort to delay the spread of COVID-19 promises to make collecting local news more difficult. Many of the local government meetings have been canceled. And the governor’s state of emergency powers have made it legal for local officials to meet and “take such actions authorized by the law without permitting in public in-person access to meetings…”

In short, these amount to secret meetings. And they make sense: invite the public and you invite the virus too. These laws are temporary, but as this COVID-19 emergency drags on, the question is: Will local officials abandon secret sessions once they’ve had a taste of them? We hope to be around to witness the return of democratic processes. For now, we put our trust in our elected officials. Our lives and our livelihoods are in their hands.

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