By Gwendolyn Craig
As cases of coronavirus continue to climb in New York, two forest rangers from the Adirondack Park’s High Peaks, are helping downstate.
That leaves the High Peaks region with five forest rangers, a worry for a crew already feeling stretched thin.
Scott van Laer, a forest ranger with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and a representative of the rangers’ union, encouraged the public to “hike safe and hike smart.” His message comes just two days after a multi-day, helicopter rescue of a 25-year-old Glens Falls woman, who was lost in the Dix Wilderness Area.
“We definitely saved the person’s life,” van Laer said in a phone interview. The woman’s speech was starting to diminish when rescuers found her, something van Laer said is a sign of hypothermia.
While he is worried about an influx of visitors into the Adirondacks, van Laer also hopes people will get outside.
“People need to exercise,” he said. “They need to get sunlight. They need it, but we’re certainly going to be down in terms of personnel. … I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We are an underfunded and understaffed organization.”
But, van Laer added, rangers are used to dealing with emergencies and unexpected things. He also noted that it’s mud season, and April is usually rangers’ quietest month. He’s keeping track of whether there are more visitors than usual, but so far, van Laer hasn’t noticed a particular increase.
Ranger numbers aren’t the only new impact Adirondack communities may feel.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday in an Albany press conference that all private businesses must reduce their workforce attendance by 50%. That does not include essential services like grocery stores, healthcare facilities and pharmacies.
The new policy goes into effect Friday, and is the latest in a smattering of statewide regulations meant to protect the public’s health. On Monday, Cuomo shut down restaurants, bars and gyms. All schools are officially closed as of Wednesday for at least two weeks.
Cuomo continued to explain the state’s biggest worry—its hospital bed capacity.
Projections show that the coronavirus will peak in New York State in about 45 days. The state is expecting to need 110,000 hospital beds, but it only has about 53,000 now. It also anticipates needing 37,000 intensive care unit hospital beds, which include ventilators. New York only has 3,000 of these. The state is relaxing its health regulations for hospital capacity in order to open up more beds.
The hospitalization rate due to coronavirus has increased from 14% last week, to 23% as of Wednesday, Cuomo said. Positive cases of coronavirus have about doubled, too, since Tuesday. Cuomo said that’s partly due to more tests being available. There are about 1,400 positive cases in New York.
While the New York City area continues to have the highest number of cases, at least two have been reported in the North Country, and more are being reported in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties just to the south.
“If we slow the spread and can handle it in the healthcare system, we’ll relax them as soon as possible,” Cuomo said about this week’s new statewide rules.
Cuomo is also working with President Donald Trump and his administration on getting access to a floating naval hospital called the USNS Comfort. The state is also looking at getting mobile hospitals.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was also deployed to New York on Wednesday.
Cuomo thanked Trump for his efforts and added that they are “fighting the same war” and “are in the same trench.”
The two High Peaks forest rangers, meanwhile, are helping with the state’s Incident Management Team, which includes personnel from nearly two dozen state agencies, responding to complex issues, which in this case, is the virus. There are 45 forest rangers from across the state who have been deployed to help.
Van Laer said the rangers will be using their incident command system skills learned when handling a wildfire. That includes things like tracking resources and making sure things aren’t missing, he continued.
“We’ve been using it for so long, and it’s such a part of our culture, that we’re good at it,” van Laer said. “We’re really good at it. So, we’re not out swabbing anybody or testing.”
So far these teams are deployed in the southern part of the state, and it’s not clear if any may be deployed in the North Country.
And if things weren’t topsy turvy enough, a handful of lawmakers met in Albany on Wednesday in an eerily empty chamber. The state budget, which is facing a $7 billion revenue shortfall since its first proposal, is supposed to be passed by April 1.
Minority Conference Leader John Flanagan, R-East Northport, and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, represented their senate colleagues on the floor as votes were collected remotely.
The state Senate passed a bill, 50-6, that would guarantee two weeks of paid sick leave and job protection for workers in New York on quarantine during the coronavirus. According to the legislation:
- Businesses who have 10 or fewer employees as of January 1, 2020, and a net income under $1 million last fiscal year, will have the full cost of employee’s leave provided by New York State insurance programs, capped at benefits coverage equal to annual salaries of $150,000.
- Businesses who have 11-99 employees as of January 1, 2020, and businesses who have 10 or fewer employees but a net income greater than $1 million last fiscal year, will be required to provide 5 days of paid leave to their employees, and the rest of the required quarantine or isolation days provided by New York State insurance programs, capped at benefits coverage equal to annual salaries of $150,000.
- Businesses who have 100 or more employees, and all government institutions, will be required to cover at least 14 days of paid leave.
The bipartisan bill drew comments from Stewart-Cousins and Flanagan, as they also reflected on the empty chambers.
“Gosh knows we have a ton more work to do,” Flanagan said, but pointed to how the situation was so important and Cuomo and Trump were working together “in a positive way.”
“Every single one of us are fighting for every single one of us,” Stewart-Cousins said. “Every aspect or our lives are changed, and changed probably for a very, very long time.”
March and April can be deadly in the Peaks and backcountry. Hope we don’t need those Rangers.