EDITORIAL: Post should say more

THE DATE THAT MATTERS is December 4. Nothing much out of the ordinary is likely to show up earlier, though how we and our neighbors behave on November 26 may give us a clue.

Eight days is an estimate of when the symptoms may begin to appear. At least some of people exposed to the coronavirus on Thanksgiving Day will test positive for Covid-19 by the first week of December. It can happen sooner or later by a week or more. The number of people exposed determines how many new cases we’ll see. That grim number will be followed by a rise in the number of hospitalizations. Then come the deaths.

Governor Andrew Cuomo thinks the public doesn’t appreciate the number of cases of Covid-19 we will see all across New York State in the weeks after Thanksgiving. So last week he signed an executive order that restricts Thanksgiving gatherings to no more than 10 people.

That led a number of sheriffs around the state to respond defiantly. They said they would refuse to enforce the law, calling it unconstitutional and claiming it would lead deputies to become “turkey police.”

That may have been just the kind of reaction our media savvy governor wanted. It didn’t take long for him to acknowledge that this law is “largely an honor system” and that, as reported in the Times Union, “nobody is saying knock on doors and count heads.” But for one brief news cycle the danger of being in gatherings large and small received the attention it deserved.

Here, the approach was more nuanced. The official Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page carried a notice this week framed by an autumn-leaves graphic. Under a heading “Because it has been asked” the notice read: “The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office will not be participating in the enforcement of New York State’s Thanksgiving gathering restrictions.”

Beneath that, a paragraph in smaller type said: “We hope everyone will be mindful of the current health pandemic as we enter the holiday season. Enjoy this time with your families!”

“Sheriff David P. Bartlett/Columbia County Sheriff” was at the bottom.

The first part of the notice adopts a measured tone, politely telling the governor that the sheriff will not be attending this dance.

Can a sheriff do that? Probably. Police officers have discretion in how they enforce certain laws. And the lack of guidance from the state on how police should crack down on private gatherings, not to mention questions about how much it would cost, may explain why sheriffs have successfully pushed back… for now.

The second paragraph of the notice is confusing. What does being “mindful of the current health pandemic” mean? We’re mindful that county residents—over 900 to date—have contracted the illness; 45 have died. We are surrounded by communities where the rate of infection is higher than here. We’re mindful that wearing face coverings over nose and mouth, keeping at least six-feet away from others and washing your hands frequently can prevent transmission of the virus. These are recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control as well as Columbia County government.

Would it have been so hard for Sheriff’s Office staff to include a reference or at least a link along with the Thanksgiving wishes on Facebook?

Advising visitors to your page to “Enjoy this time with your families!” without pointing out the best scientific guidance makes it seem as if the sheriff wants it both ways. But like medical personnel, police officers know this can be a matter of life and death. If you want people to be mindful, don’t be vague about what qualifies as mindful pandemic behavior.

Does this ask too much from a 42-word Facebook post? That doesn’t seem likely as we brace for a post-Thanksgiving surge of infections. It will help remind us how vulnerable we remain. We need all our community leaders to discourage large gatherings and promote social distancing, face coverings and hand washing.

Amend the holiday post to include the county’s recommendations and advise the public not to exceed 10 people at dinner. You don’t need to arrest anyone to accomplish this. A few words just might save lives.

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