SARATOGA COUNTY — Saratoga County’s leaders would like to see a return to a normal, thriving tourist economy this year — and the path there is through widespread vaccinations against COVID-19, they told the Saratoga County Chamber of Commercial at a virtual breakfast on Wednesday.
“In a perfect world, I’d like to see Saratoga County operate as it did before COVID-19, that’s my goal,” said Moreau Town Supervisor Todd Kusnierz, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.
He said addressing the pandemic and getting people vaccinated are the county’s top priorities for the year, and to date nearly 31% of the county’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine.
“The biggest challenge we face is getting as many people vaccinated as possible,” said County Administrator Steve Bulger.
For the chamber’s annual “State of the County” breakfast, Kusnierz and Bulger spoke to about 90 business people and community leaders in a Zoom meeting, since large in-person gatherings remain problematic due to the pandemic, which arrived in the Capital Region a year ago.
Pandemic fears and gathering restrictions devastated the Saratoga tourism season last year, with audience-dependent arts venues like the Saratoga Performing Arts Center closed, and Saratoga Race Course running thoroughbred horse races without fans. But there’s hope for this summer: Based on the most recent guidelines from the state, those venues could see at least small audience gatherings this year.
On Monday, state tourism officials said they are planning for a major tourism comeback, and will be encouraging New Yorkers to vacation in-state this year to boost local visitor-based economies. Tourism is at the heart of the Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County economies.
Chamber President Todd Shimkus said chamber officials are working with the track, SPAC, Skidmore College and the Saratoga Casino Hotel on plans to urge people to come back. “We need them to be successful for all our small businesses to be successful,” Shimkus said. “The reality is our No. 1 goal for this year is for people to get their shots. That’s the only way we get open 100%.”
Over the last year, Kusnierz said the county has had nearly 12,900 cases of COVID documented, with 154 deaths. There are currently 317 active cases among county residents, with 17 county residents hospitalized.
Kusnierz said 72,000 of the county’s 235,000 residents have had at least one dose of vaccine, and 38,000 have completed their vaccinations. In both categories, Kusnierz said Saratoga County has a higher percentage vaccinated than the state and national averages. More than half the county’s senior citizens have received at least one shot.
“If we had access to more vaccine, we could do even more, but we are at the mercy of the state [for supply],” Kusnierz said.
The county last year appropriated $1 million for pandemic response measures, and has used that money to pay for dozens of contact tracers, a private vaccine appointment scheduling contractor, and a $50,000 rapid-testing machine “that is used every day,” the chairman said. He also noted that the county has hired its first-ever public health commissioner, Dr. Daniel Kuhles, who is a trained epidemiologist.
The county also has a $49,000 per month rental agreement with the Saratoga Springs City Center that will make it available as a mass vaccination site if the county starts to receive large quantities of vaccine.
Kusnierz and Bulger also touched on plans for $44 million in funding the county anticipates receiving under the federal stimulus legislation signed earlier this month, which included money to bail out local governments across the country that have seen steep revenue losses, and help them avoid future budget cuts. (Towns, cities and villages in the county will share about $30 million.) The county is awaiting guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department on how the money can be used, but Bulger said he anticipates the county will be told to use at least half the money now, rather than save it for a future emergency.
Bulger said he also anticipates that a new infrastructure bill will be passed in Washington, D.C., which would provide money that could be used for road and bridge repairs and expansion of broadband internet service, which is particularly lacking in the more rural northwest corner of the county.