Capital Region

Adirondack counties weary of influx of people from downstate amid COVID-19

President of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers club says, “all hikers should give the High Peaks a break”
The packed parking area at Kane Mountain Trailhead in the town of Caroga is seen on Saturday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
The packed parking area at Kane Mountain Trailhead in the town of Caroga is seen on Saturday.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County

When Town of Caroga Supervisor Scott Horton drove through the roads of his small town this past week, he said he saw a lot of familiar vehicles, but ones he normally only sees in the summer months.

“And residents have been stopping to tell me too, saying ‘hey, my neighbor’s back, early,’ ‘So and so is back in town,’ ‘Guess who I just saw? Don’t normally see him this time of year,’ ” Horton said, describing the comments from the year-round residents of his town, known for its lakes and its position in the foothills of the Adirondacks.

“It’s a natural progression, happens every year, but this year it’s happening about two months early,” Horton said.

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Town of Caroga resident John Livingston was more blunt, taking photos of the packed parking area at the Kane Mountain trailhead on Saturday.

“Been like this for a week, daily and 95 percent from out-of-area, two to four people per car, over 75 vehicles in the course of the day, more than 4th of July week,” he said. “The fire tower is closed, but some people are going up anyway. Many license plates from downstate, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts.”

During the first few weeks of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state officials have encouraged people to take advantage of state parks and hiking trails during the shutdown of all nonessential business activities. Apparently many people have followed this advice, and an unknown number of people from downstate New York and other states have decided to take residence in their upstate New York vacation homes. This has not gone unnoticed by local officials.

Fulton County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Warren Greene on Friday issued a statement that runs contrary to his county’s normally pro-tourism stance.

“[I call] upon our visitors, weekenders, and short-term rental owners and those with rental listings to refrain from visiting Fulton County during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Greene, who represents Gloversville’s 6th Ward. “Fulton County officials are attempting to proactively reduce further exposure that could impact the county’s population and its overall health condition. We are beginning to see an influx of travelers from outside the county who are staying at second homes and short-term rentals, like Airbnb and Vrbo. We are also seeing people who believe that they will receive faster testing services leaving their main residence and coming here.”

Warren County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Frank Thomas has “strongly requested” that all property owners, including owners of second homes, stop listing their properties on websites like Airbnb and other short term rental sites.

In a news release issued Saturday, Warren County Public Health Services continued its request that seasonal homeowners who came to the county in recent days self-quarantine for 14 days and contact the agency at 518-761-6580 to go over resources for assistance and local protocols.

Montgomery County Public Health Director Sara Boerenko said her office has received phone calls from residents concerned about an influx of out-of-towners. In her daily press releases updating county residents about COVID-19, Boerenko has reiterated that privacy laws prevent the county from revealing the identity of people who’ve tested positive.

“We’ve been receiving a number of phone calls from folks who are concerned because they live in areas where people have summer homes. Obviously on the Sacandaga Lake there’s lots of properties where there are summer homes. In Warren County there are lot of summer homes — so, what we’re asking is that if they have a summer home up here, and they plan on coming up here — they need to contact our office and be placed on a 14-day quarantine, if they are coming up from Long Island or New York City,” she said.

Boerenko said there’s not a legal requirement currently in New York state that people from downstate quarantine for 14-days, but she wants them to do it, and she wants them to call her office at 518-853-3531.

“It’s officially highly recommended because if you’re coming up here from New York City in the middle of March, as people are, it’s not really summer, and if you’re trying to get out of New York City or Long Island because you’re trying to get out of what’s going on down there, I really don’t feel comfortable with people coming up with us not knowing their medical status,” she said. “I’d really like to know if people are running around my county, if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, and if they are breaking a quarantine. That’s something we really need to know about.”

Boerenko said no one has called to alert her office yet to tell her they’ve relocated to her county.

“Nope, not yet,” she said.

Travel bans

Local concerns and opposition to travel from downstate is occurring simultaneously with states like Florida, Texas, Maryland and Rhode Island all issuing mandates that anyone from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut entering their states undergo a mandatory self-quarantine for at least 14-days. Rhode Island State Police and the State National Guard had pulled over motorists and checked houses door-to-door to collect contact information and inform people of the mandate.

Cuomo said Sunday that Rhode Island has rescinded the policy after he objected to it, calling the idea “not very neighborly.”

As of Sunday’s press briefing, Cuomo indicated New York state has 59,513 positive cases of COVID-19 and 965 people have died from the disease.

New York City has the bulk of the positive cases, 33,768, followed by Westchester County with 8,519 and the Long Island counties of Nassau, 6,445, and Suffolk, 5,023.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump said he was considering some kind of temporary quarantine of New York state, New Jersey and Connecticut, but then pulled back the idea suggesting instead a travel advisory after Cuomo criticized the idea as a “declaration of war on the states.”

Cuomo has dismissed calls for an outright travel ban within New York state’s counties and municipalities, similar to what Italy has imposed. He told radio show host Alan Chartock that he doesn’t like the idea on a Friday broadcast on WAMC radio.

“Some leaders from upstate New York are calling on you to establish a travel ban on people coming from the New York City area or to establish an order to require them to self-quarantine for 14 days,” Chartock said. “I don’t like it, but I’m not the governor, you are. Would you issue such a ban?”

“No. I don’t like it,” Cuomo said. “I don’t like it socially or culturally. I don’t like what it says about us as one state, one family. Also I don’t believe it’s medically justified. Our Health Commissioner Howard Zucker doesn’t recommend it.”

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, on Monday said she thought Adirondack trails should remain open and people should enjoy them — but with common sense and proper preparations.

Stefanik, whose sprawling district includes the Adirondacks, said enjoying the great outdoors is a great way to maintain mental well being in stressful times.

“It’s safe to go outside, especially if you keep your distance,” she said. But she added: “It’s going to take a really balanced approach,” by which she means no ban on visitors to the Adirondacks and no reckless or foolish behavior from those who travel there.

Stefanik noted emergency responders recently had to mount a rescue effort for a hiker who went out unprepared.

“We need to be cognizant that all our resources are stretched really thin right now,” she said. “I would need to say, don’t try to become a 46er right now.”

Anti-tourism message

On March 22 Siobhan Carney-Nesbitt, President of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers club, an organization of hikers who have climbed all 46 of the traditionally recognized High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, issued a statement asking people to stop hiking those mountains due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Take travel restrictions and social distancing seriously,” he said. “Go for a walk in your neighborhood or on low-risk nature hikes in your own communities in an effort to avoid unnecessary strain on DEC personnel and local healthcare facilities. Refrain from traveling to the High Peaks from outside the High Peaks region at this time. Effective 8 p.m. March 22 all hikers should give the High Peaks a break during this especially vulnerable time and abide by state and local restrictions until lifted.”

Typically nonprofit groups dedicated to outdoor recreation favor and attempt to court the influx of travelers from downstate New York, but these are not normal times.

Peter Bauer, executive director of advocacy group Protect the Adirondacks, said it was important people didn’t travel to the region for outdoors adventures, even if that cuts against the Adirondacks’ core nature.

Bauer said the draw of the Adirondacks — and nature in general — is powerful during times like these, pointing out that the park has long been a place where people come for “emotionally and spiritually recharging.”

“In a previous pandemic, this was the healing woods,” Bauer said.

But concerns about strained rescue resources and limited health care capacity has environmental advocates and tourism promoters both urging people from outside the Adirondacks to stay away and hike or adventure near home.

“You would think in a time of pandemic our rangers would be doing other things than rescuing people in the High Peaks,” Bauer said. “Our health system in the North Country is not robust.”

The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, an organization that promotes Adirondack tourism, put out a video this week full of evocative images of the beauty and excitement of the region — the lakes, and trails and mountain vistas that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors from all of the world. But the video ended with a message ROOST doesn’t usually promote: for now, leave the Adirondacks alone.

“We’ll be here,” ROOST says in its latest messaging.

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Jim McKenna, CEO of ROOST, said the organization has suspended a paid advertising campaign for the Adirondacks through May. The organization emailed a simple message to its list of thousands of visitors: “Pause now, play later.” ROOST even removed the spring tab from its website.”

And if those warnings aren’t enough, McKenna said so many businesses, including restaurants and hotels, are closed that people would have a hard time meeting their needs if they came to visit.

“If you are coming to recreate, we don’t have facilities open, restaurants are closed,” McKenna said. “A lot of our businesses are closed.”

McKenna also said he and others in the region are concerned that an influx of visitors or people looking to stay at second homes or rent from other property owners would strain the region’s health care infrastructure far beyond what it is prepared for.

But the region is heavily dependent on tourism, with an enormous number of small businesses that operate thanks to tourists and visitors.

“When the economy is based on the travel industry and the travel industry is pretty much shut down, it has a tremendous impact,” McKenna said.

‘Sterile’ communities

Some counties, like Fulton County with only one confirmed COVID-19 positive case, and Essex County with four confirmed cases, have indicated they believe their counties have had low exposure to the virus and would like to keep it that way.

Shaun Gillilland, chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors, issued a statement telling out-of-county visitors to take responsibility for the potential spread of the virus.

“Essex County currently has 4 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and is responding with measures to proactively reduce further exposure as it impacts our limited resources,” said Gillilland, who represents the town of Willsboro. “To date, we have seen an alarming influx of travelers from outside the county who are staying at second homes and short-term rentals, like Airbnb and Vrbo. While you may be seeking refuge from the larger amount of cases downstate, you must be aware that this is a global pandemic. You and your families have a critical role to fulfill in halting the rapid spread of this virus, which can be dangerous and even fatal to the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.”

Jamie Ward, the mayor of the Village of Mayfield, located on the Great Sacandaga Lake, said he’s concerned Fulton County simply doesn’t have the medical resources necessary to handle an outbreak of COVID-19 cases. He said he is worried about statements Gov. Cuomo has made indicating the possibility that overflow virus patients from downstate might be sent to upstate hospitals. Ward said he’d prefer non-COVID-19 hospital patients be sent up instead, like pregnancies or people with injuries.

“Our area can’t handle a significant outbreak. We don’t have the resources or the staff,” Ward said. “If you see folks out there, obviously don’t approach them. I don’t want the public getting crazy about this, but if you know them, personally, you need to tell them to self-quarantine and stay in their homes for 14 days.”

Horton said he disagrees with the statement issued by Fulton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Warren Greene asking outsiders not to come to Fulton County. He said he won’t go so far as to tell downstate, or out-of-state, people who own property in his town not to come to Caroga.

“I disagree with Warren on that. It’s not that we don’t want them to come — we want them to realize the reality that, if they come from an area that’s been highly infected by the disease, for their own personal safety, come on up here, try to stay away from people, initially, stay safe and sound, but 14 days seems to be the magic number, and we’d certainly appreciate that,” Horton said. “This is why people have places up here. With the restaurants shut down, there isn’t a lot to do right now anyway, so listen to the governor and the CDC and realize that you’re coming into a sterile community, and we’d like to keep it that way.”

Boerenko on Sunday said in a news release that Montgomery County currently has 7 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 among residents, and currently has 64 people quarantined.

Fulton County has remained at one positive case since March 19 and has not reported a number for quarantined people.

Some have questioned the accuracy of the reported number of positive cases in the rural counties of New York given the relative scarcity of test kits for the virus. Cuomo himself has speculated that the real number of positive cases in New York state is likely much higher than the state’s testing has indicated, although New York has tested more residents for the virus than any other state.

Boerenko cautioned that counties in New York state received COVID-19 test kits proportional to their population, which limits how many tests were applied at the beginning of the outbreak, and there are fewer tests now, with most hospitals only able to test patients with the worst symptoms.

“We only have enough tests to cover our critical care unit at this point,” she said.

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