When voters go to cast their ballots Tuesday they will be met with relaxed safety protocols amid a monthslong surge of COVID cases, a stark contrast to last year’s election.
Masks are no longer required for poll workers and voters at polling sites throughout Schenectady, Saratoga, Fulton and Montgomery counties, though face coverings are being encouraged in each county.
“We’re asking everyone to wear a mask but we’re not requiring it,” said Darlene Harris, the Republican election commissioner for Schenectady County.
The relaxed protocols are in line with recent guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommend that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask while in public indoor settings.
Masks, according to federal guidelines, are still required in congregate healthcare settings and for those who have not been vaccinated against COVID — which has killed more than 700,000 across the country — though enforcement has been lax in most cases.
Last year, voters standing in line were required to stay 6 feet apart, and mask-wearing and stringent disinfecting protocols were in place at polling sites throughout the state.
Concerns surrounding the virus last year also kept senior poll workers away, sending local election boards scrambling to fill vacancies ahead of Election Day, which saw high voter turnout.
With the vaccine rollout in full effect, last year’s protocols have not been renewed in light of the most recent federal guidance.
But in places like Schenectady County, many senior poll workers have chosen to return.
The county was able to operate at full staff last year thanks to a contingent of young volunteers who were either working from home or left out of the workforce for various pandemic-related reasons, according to Harris.
But with many seniors now inoculated and others returning to work in some capacity, the roles have switched.
Schenectady County is “fully staffed” ahead of Election Day, with roughly 550 workers spread throughout polling sites across the county, Harris said.
“We did have a group kind of step up when the seniors opted to stay home,” she said, “That pool has now returned to work to some degree, so our seniors that were able to be vaccinated were more comfortable coming out this year.”
Still, the virus continues to surge in the county, with 399 cases reported in the past seven days as of Friday, according to CDC data.
Low turnout, low vaccination rates
Voter turnout is expected to be far lower than the 2020 election, which featured a contentious presidential race and unprecedented voter turnout thanks in large part to the ability to vote by mail.
Still, polling places are likely to be crowded at times, which is why local election boards are recommending everyone adhere to CDC guidelines.
In Fulton County, vaccination rates remain low throughout the region. Cases have been steadily climbing for months, largely due to the highly transmissible delta variant, which has been spreading predominantly among the unvaccinated.
Just 48% of those eligible for the vaccines in the county have been fully inoculated. At 58%, vaccination rates are better among those of voting age, according to CDC data.
The county, meanwhile, continues to see “high” transmission of the virus, reporting 220 cases in the past seven days, according to the most recent CDC data. The agency recommends all individuals living in areas seeing “substantial” and high transmission wear a mask in public, indoor settings.
Still, masks will not be required for those seeking to cast a ballot, said Cinda Spraker, deputy Republican election commissioner.
“We’re following the CDC guidelines,” she said.
The same protocols are in place throughout the region, including in neighboring Montgomery County, which has considerably higher vaccination rates.
Around 74% of the county’s 18-and-over population have been fully vaccinated, according to CDC data. The county has reported 173 cases in the past seven days, per CDC data.
Poll workers across the county will continue to disinfect polling stations regularly throughout the day, but not as frequently as last year, said Terry Bieniek, Democratic election commissioner.
Instead of wiping down each station between voters, workers will clean the stations every 30 minutes, he said.
Masks are recommended but not required, he said, adding that the guidance has not presented any issues during early voting.
“We’re not forcing anybody to wear a mask, so it’s been quiet,” Bieniek said. “I think if we mandated masks then, yes, we would have trouble.”
Both counties are fully staffed with poll workers this year.
Uncertainty in Saratoga County
In Saratoga County, the number of poll workers has yet to be finalized, according to Colin Palumbo, deputy Democratic commissioner.
The county has enough to staff its 196 election districts, but some sites might only have one inspector from the two major political parties instead of the usual two. That means longer hours for workers and less chance to take a break.
“We don’t have optimal coverage but we do have coverage,” Palumbo said.
He added that the number changes almost daily, with workers dropping out and new volunteers being recruited. The county typically needs 784 poll workers.
“We can always use more, but we do have coverage,” he said.
Asked about safety protocols, Palumbo said the county will have hand sanitizer at each polling location and will be disinfecting booths regularly throughout the day.
The county has reported 466 COVID cases in the past seven days, according to CDC data.
As far as mask wearing, people have the option though face coverings are encouraged.
Palumbo said special protocols were in place last year in the event that voters opted not to wear a mask. This year, he said, the goal is to process everyone as quickly as possible.
“Last year we had procedures in place to separate them out. This year, it’s just going to be a case of let’s get them processed and out of the polling place as fast as possible,” he said.
Election Day is Nov. 2.