hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News June 2020



Region moves to reopen as virus spread slows


Two months after the coronavirus thrust the region’s economy into a deep freeze, public health officials began to give the OK in May for the first steps toward reopening.

With new cases of Covid-19 on the decline across Vermont, Massachusetts and New York, the governors of the three states began to roll back restrictions that had abruptly shuttered schools, nonessential businesses and government offices beginning in March. The details varied by state, but businesses that were allowed to reopen faced new operating restrictions, while health officials continued to urge people to wear face masks, wash hands frequently and maintain physical distance of 6 feet or more from others.

By the beginning of June, hair salons and houses of worship began to reopen across the region, restaurants were preparing to offer outdoor table service in addition to takeout, and many retail stores and offices were able to resume operations with reduced occupancy limits. But gyms, bars, movie theaters (except drive-ins), amusement parks, performance halls and sports arenas remained shuttered.

Over the course of May, it became clear how many aspects of life would not be returning to normal this summer. With large-scale gatherings expected to remain banned for weeks or even months to come, many of the region’s theater and music festivals called off their summer seasons entirely, and organizers canceled events ranging from agricultural fairs to Fourth of July parades.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled its Tanglewood Music Festival, the crown jewel of the Berkshires’ summer season, for the first time since World War II, replacing it with a series of online offerings. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center called off the summer residencies of the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The thoroughbreds will still run at the Saratoga Race Course, but without live spectators.

Other event cancellations announced over the past month include the Saratoga County Fair, the Vermont State Fair, and FreshGrass, the bluegrass and roots music festival normally held every September at Mass MoCA.

The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, which normally attracts 30,000 visitors a year to its campus in Stockbridge, announced May 21 that it would shut down until 2021, laying off 450 employees. Kripalu had already been closed to visitors since mid-March but was able to keep paying its staff with funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program; those funds were expected to run out in June.

Couples planning large weddings either scaled down their guest lists or postponed until 2021. In Vermont, the head of the Vermont Association of Wedding Professionals told the Rutland Herald that the state’s wedding industry expected to earn no more than 20 percent of its normal revenue this year.

And even when restaurants are allowed to resume indoor dining service in the weeks ahead, they are expected to be limited to about half their normal seating capacity. As a result, local communities from Rutland to Lenox, Mass., have been debating proposals to allow more use of sidewalk and street space for outdoor dining tables.


Pandemic’s toll
By the beginning of June, state figures showed more than 2,500 people had been sickened by Covid-19 across the Berkshires, southwestern Vermont and the New York counties of Columbia, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Warren and Washington. Most of those people had recovered, but at least 166 died from the disease since it made its first appearance locally in early March. That translates to a mortality rate of more than 6 percent among the region’s documented cases.
Nursing homes have continued to suffer the worst of the pandemic and accounted for 93 of the region’s coronavirus deaths as of June 1. The Williamstown Commons facility in Massachusetts alone saw 24 of these fatalities, while another 38 people had died in a cluster of Covid-19 outbreaks at three nursing homes in the Glens Falls area.

Although the elderly are most vulnerable to the disease, health officials warn that Covid-19 can pose serious risks to younger people as well, especially those with pre-existing health issues including such common conditions as obesity and hypertension. Statewide data from New York show about two-thirds of the deaths so far have occurred among people over 70, but another 30 percent were among people between the ages of 50 and 70.

State and local health officials have worked in recent weeks to expand testing capacity, which was extremely limited for the first two months of the pandemic, and to train a network of contact tracers whose task will be to quickly track and contain new clusters of disease that might arise as more economic activity resumes.

In New York, the seven-day average of new Covid-19 cases per day dropped from more than 10,000 in April to a little more than 1,000 as of June 1. Massachusetts, which had been recording more than 2,000 new cases per day in late April, was down to a few hundred per day, and Vermont, which peaked at about 40 cases per day in early April was down to fewer than five per day.

In an effort to curb outbreaks at nursing homes, New York in mid-May began requiring twice-a-week coronavirus testing for all employees at long-term care facilities. Nursing homes have been closed to visitors since early March, so health officials say the biggest risk for introducing the coronavirus into the facilities comes from employees who might come into contact with it in the wider community.

But nursing home operators objected to the cost of the testing requirement, which they estimated at more than $40 million a week, and questioned whether state and private labs had the capacity to process the additional 300,000 tests a week that would be required to comply with the new mandate.

At the same time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo adjusted a controversial directive he had issued in late March telling nursing homes they could not deny admission to patients who were recovering from Covid-19. Critics said those recovering patients might pose a risk of infection at nursing homes where there weren’t already coronavirus outbreaks.

Under a new executive order announced in mid-May, the governor said hospitals would be barred from discharging a patient into a nursing home unless the patient first tests negative for Covid-19. But that change drew pushback from hospitals: The Times Union of Albany quoted officials of Albany Medical Center warning that the new requirement would strain hospitals’ finances and capacity by forcing them to continue housing patients who no longer require acute medical care.

In other news from around the region in May:


Local communities join wave of protests
The death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in late May sparked a rolling series of demonstrations in local communities that continued for more than a week.
From Rutland to Hudson, N.Y., and from Pittsfield and North Adams to Bennington, Cambridge, N.Y., and Glens Falls, crowds that ranged from dozens to hundreds turned out to demand justice for Floyd, protest police brutality and show support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Floyd, an unarmed black man who was 46, died on the evening of Memorial Day in the custody of police who were responding to a complaint he’d passed a counterfeit $20 bill at a Minneapolis store. Cellphone video taken by a bystander shows four officers holding him face down on a city street, with one kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes as he pleads that he can’t breathe and then goes limp.

The video set off a wave of street protests and civil unrest that continued for days across the nation. But in contrast to the tense confrontations between police and protesters in major cities that in some cases were marred by violence, arson and looting, the local protests over Floyd’s death remained entirely peaceful.

In Hudson, the Register-Star reported that a demonstration organized by Mayor Kamal Johnson attracted about 300 people and included speeches by Johnson and the city’s police commissioner.

Johnson, who is the city’s first African American mayor, also invited members of the local youth organization Kite’s Nest to the microphone. One of them, Dezjuan Smith, summed up the urgency of the protests.

“After being left speechless by the horrific video that we all saw, I think now we can’t simply speak. We need to do,” he said. “The best way to make an impact is to show people that we matter, that everybody matters. And I feel like it is not just a race thing, it is a class thing. It is an oppression thing.”

Elected officials from around the region also spoke out about Floyd’s death and the protests that followed, though the tone of their comments varied according to their political persuasions.
In an op-ed column in The Washington Post, U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, described how he launched his political career two years ago, winning a seat representing the House district that includes Columbia and Rensselaer counties.

“I’m a black man representing a district that is nearly 90 percent white and in one of the most rural parts of the country,” Delgado wrote. “I’m the first person of color to ever represent upstate New York in Congress. … My experience is proof that voting can bring about change that once might have seemed out of reach — in fact, it’s crucial to changing the laws and policies that have caused so much agony.”

He urged protestors to stay engaged and to use their vote if they want to achieve lasting change.
“Protesting alone is not enough,” Delgado continued. “If you want to hold police officers accountable through the criminal justice system, then you need to vote and elect prosecutors who will do so. If you want to change training practices and use-of-force policies to prevent unjust outcomes, then you need to vote for local officials who will make these changes. … And if you want national leaders with the moral courage to lead with compassion and love rather than with cowardly fear-mongering designed to fan the flames of hate and division, then you must vote for those leaders.”

-- Compiled by Fred Daley