ALBANY — Service providers and advocates for developmentally disabled New Yorkers pressed the state Monday to take their clients and loved ones out of COVID-19 lockdown.
Group homes remain closed to family visits, day programs remain on hiatus and home visits are prohibited statewide as a precaution against infection, even as restaurants reopen, barbers can cut hair again and groups of up to 25 people can gather in certain regions of the state.
Speakers at a virtual press conference Monday pointed out the disparity in this, and explained the impact the shutdown is having on disabled people who in some cases have difficulty understanding and dealing with the world around them, even under the best of circumstances.
“My housemates and I want to be able to see the outside world again,” said Robyn Lipschutz, a resident of a Long Island group home. “Please Governor Cuomo, let people out of this cell.”
The event, held on Zoom and led by Assemblywoman Melissa Miller, a Long Island Republican, focused on the lingering hardship the lockdown is causing. Miller said the initial shutdown was reasonable as the global pandemic reached the United States and hit New York the hardest.
That need is gone now, and continuation of the strict precautions is a damaging hardship, she said.
“If you don’t live this life you don’t know how it feels,” Miller added.
In a statement, the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities said it appreciates the frustration and concern but preventing infection is paramount. The agency is working with the state Department of Health to develop a process and timeline to resume visitation safely and will announce new guidelines soon, it added.
The three state legislators and single county executive participating in Monday’s event, all Republicans, generally steered clear of directly criticizing Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has assumed direct and strong control over the state’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.
However, their words pointed to a pattern of action that has led to a recurring criticism of Cuomo and his administration during the crisis: The governor lays out the big picture with broad strokes and key details but the thousand little details are left unstated. State agencies that would normally provide oversight and guidance on these details may instead fall silent, deferring the the Governor’s Office.
Thus it is with the OPWDD, speakers at Monday’s news conference said, adding they have been getting no response. Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro called OPWDD institutionally paralyzed and said it has been totally silent in response to questions and complaints about the lockdown.
Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, who spoke at Monday’s news conference, said she doesn’t get to see behind the curtain but her impression is that the Governor’s Office is overwhelmed as it tries to directly manage all aspects of the state’s response itself.
She recalls business owners within her district and beyond calling her office for help in determining whether they were “essential” and could remain open amid Cuomo’s shutdown of the economy, or whether they would qualify for reopening in a particular phase. She would present the question to state officials and not get an answer she could relay back to her callers.
But business owners at least understand why they are shut down, Walsh said. Many people with developmental disabilities can’t understand why they’re suddenly cut off from their friends and family and routine, she said.
“They crave routine and predictability,” she said. “They’re very concrete thinkers.”
Consider the level of disruption in our own lives the COVID-19 crisis has caused, and then imagine what the situation is like for those with difficulty comprehending or responding to it, she said.
“The longer this goes on the harder it’s going to be,” said Walsh, whose oldest son, Terry, is on the autism spectrum but lives independently.
Mary Ann Allen, executive director of Wildwood Programs, said there have been no COVID infections in any of Wildwood’s 22 residential facilities. She pointed out that staff safely rotates through three shifts a day and families of residents are allowed to go out to dinner in a restaurant — but families can’t visit residents.
As it drags on, the lockdown becomes reminiscent of the old days when the developmentally disabled were warehoused in institutions, she added.
Molinaro called the situation a violation of the rights of the developmentally disabled.
“We understand and hear the frustration and concern from families at not being able to visit or provide in-person comfort to their children who are currently living in a group home,” OPWDD said via email Monday. “But it’s also our responsibility to ensure the continued health and safety of the vulnerable population we support in group homes and the staff who support them, which is why based on the advice of health experts, we temporarily suspended home visits and visitation at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to cautiously proceed in reopening.”
OPWDD added that window visits, video chats and telephone calls are options in the interim; the advocates said all of these fail as a replacement for in-person visits with most developmentally disabled people.
Cuomo on Monday hailed New York’s continued progress in beating down the pandemic and railed against those New Yorkers who are engaging in risky behavior that could slow or halt this progress, which has come at great cost in dollars and suffering.
At his daily briefing, he urged local governments to enforce the rules, and crack down on businesses that don’t practice safe distancing and other infection control measures. Asked by a reporter why he didn’t just send the New York State Police to crack down, the governor said there aren’t enough troopers to do this, and it’s not the state job.
Cuomo said he makes the decisions, the cities and counties enforce them.
“I have taken responsibility for every bad decision and every unpopular decision,” he said.
In return, he asks that the locals enforce those unpopular policy decisions.
With 25 deaths in the previous day, New York state’s official death toll stood at 24,579 on Monday morning. One Capital Region resident was among the latest casualties — an Albany County woman in her 80s.