In This Together, But…

Published by Gerald Benjamin on

Vice President Pence and other federal officials suggested on March 24 that it would be a good idea for people to self-quarantine for two weeks if they’ve recently left or passed through New York City. Three days later President Trump declared that he was thinking of quarantining parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Then he backed off when Cuomo, according to the New York Times, said the notion “was at odds with Mr. Trump’s professed desire to restart the economy. ‘You would paralyze the financial sector,’ the governor said.”

Earlier, within New York State, several Hudson Valley county government leaders urged downstaters to stay put. Their plea extended not only to visitors but to those who own second homes (and pay property taxes) in their counties. For example, Sullivan County Public Health Director Nancy McGraw and County Manager Joshua Potosek specifically referenced the City when they wrote: “Please don’t travel here from another county or geographic area, including the five boroughs of New York City, which is experiencing community transmission of COVID-19.”

At this writing, 41 percent (66,497) of the nation’s 163,539 diagnosed COVID-19 cases were in New York State. Of these more than half (37,453, which is 56%) were in New York City. An additional 22,461 were in the city’s closest suburban counties: 7,344 in Nassau, 9,326 in Westchester and 5,791 in Suffolk. Greater New York (including surrounding counties to the north and east) has become the national epicenter for the COVID-19 pandemic. People across the nation have been urged (sometimes required) to stay at home and to engage in what we’ve come to know as “social distancing” to slow the spread of the virus. So these out-of-state/upstate reactions to persons coming from NYC have some grounding in the grim realities of the new normal that defines our daily lives. They are not just manifestations of anti-NYC sentiment.

But surely there’s a bit of that in there too. The nation has long had a love/hate relationship with its world city. Tourists flock in to visit the Metropolitan Museum, Lincoln Center, Broadway and Yankee Stadium. New York City is a magnet for America’s best and brightest in the arts, culture, academe, law and commerce. With Frank Sinatra, they agree: “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” Yet there is also the view – nurtured by movies and in the media – of the City as sort of “foreign,” and beset by crime, corruption and hedonistic excess. While waiting on line in Times Square for those discounted tickets to Broadway shows it’s not uncommon for a native to overhear: “It’s great to visit but I wouldn’t want to live here.”

Maps that show New York State as dark blue in national politics obscure that our rural counties are solid red. All have reported at least a single coronavirus case, but local elected leaders in some have been restive about statewide policy closing down most business. Within New York an upstate/downstate tension has been a defining element for all of the state’s history, rooted in vastly different regional economies, settlement patterns, demographics, and religious and cultural characteristics. For generations upstate Republicans battled downstate Democrats for control of state government. At times differences have become intense enough to generate secession movements – some initiated downstate, some upstate. More recently and locally, village and town politics in our region is not infrequently marked by clashes between locals and newly arrived downstaters.

Defining the regional parameters for our research on the Hudson Valley at the BenCen has been neither simple nor … we freely admit … consistent. How far south to go? How far north? How far west? Our primary focus has been on four Mid-Hudson counties: Orange, Dutchess, Ulster and Sullivan. But the definition of “the region” could and did change with the nature of our particular substantive focus. And sometimes, with good reason, it included New York City.

The relationship is synergistic. The Hudson Valley is the source of and trustees for the City’s water, keeping it the purest of any major city in the world. Downstate students, many from the city, fill our colleges. Our farmers find ready buyers for their produce in city markets and restaurants. We welcome downstate second-home owners and visitors to our open spaces, farm stands, historic sites, hotels and B&Bs. Every morning you can board one of several Adirondack Trailways Buses at the station up my street in New Paltz (the earliest at 4:45) and be at your desk in Manhattan by the start of your business day; many do.

But it is not all synergy. There are also tensions between the region more modestly defined and the Greater New York Metropolitan Region. One is in health care. We have many fine physicians and some first-rate hospitals. A new medical school has started up in Orange County; another is on the way in Dutchess. 

In response to the governor’s call, we have opened additional beds in Kingston to help meet crisis needs in the region. But we start with a very limited base of beds and intensive care facilities, sometimes as a direct result of governmental policy to reduce health care costs. Many of our small towns have lost their physicians to retirement. Contemporary service delivery models mitigate against the replacement of country doctors in one physician offices, leaving older rural patients far from sources of care. Trained volunteers are harder and harder to recruit to staff emergency response systems. Meanwhile, specialists have to compete for potential patients with world class alternatives available to Mid-Hudson residents downstate, an hour-and-a-half away. 

During the summer, when the population near doubles in some of our more rural counties, our emergency responders and health care providers manage the increased workload. By and large visitors are healthy, and some seasonal residents bring services with them. The Chassidic community’s Hatzalah Emergency response ambulance service is among the best in the state, perhaps in the country.

Because of our role in the larger metropolitan region in ordinary times, as a vacation area, we do have the capacity to house far more people than live in the Mid-Hudson area year-round. When a massive crisis occurs, however, especially one like the coronavirus emergency that brings a widespread threat to the very lives of many in our communities, we simply lack the institutional capacity and medical resources to take on more. Indeed, it is not clear that we have the capacity to keep ourselves safe and healthy or that we can count on others – also in crisis – to help us do so.

“It shouldn’t matter what your ZIP code is or where you are coming from” Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan said just the other day: “If you need help, we’re going to help you.” That’s what Ulster County is. That’s what our community is.” It’s true that our differences notwithstanding, we New Yorkers, upstate and down, have usually in the end embraced the value of being in it together. Those in need of care would never, should never, be turned away. But right now, we all best serve the nation, our communities and ourselves by remembering that “charity begins (by staying put) at home,” both for up- and downstaters.


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