On the South Fork, almost all storefronts are dark and workplaces closed as part of a statewide effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But landscapers appear to be a large and visible exception. This puts workers, among them some of the area’s more vulnerable members of the labor force, at increased risk of exposure.
A lack of clarity hovers over work that is considered essential under the state’s PAUSE order. Since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced business restrictions on March 20, the details have had to be revised several times. At this point, however, it is no mystery that only maintenance landscaping can continue, with the exception, as with other business instances, of sole owner-operators. Many companies have complied but some have failed to get the message — or just ignored it.
This week, we have seen crews installing a privacy hedge of arborvitae in Sag Harbor and planting ornamental trees in East Hampton. While traffic has lightened on the main roads by more than half, landscapers’ trucks are continuing to roll — some keeping up the practice of stuffing three or four men in the vehicles’ cabs bumping elbows, much closer than the recommended six-foot separation. And there are landscape supply trucks still on the road as well, hauling trees, topsoil, and sod — legal but perhaps unnecessary right now.
The problem can be traced to the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, which has interpreted Governor Cuomo’s executive order too broadly. In a memo released last week, the department appeared to use the state’s broadest definition of horticulture to exempt nearly all landscaping work. This interpretation is at odds with the executive order, which was intended to keep key services going while halting everything else.
It is not entirely surprising that the Department of Agriculture and Markets would go rogue. In the past, it has not infrequently offered opinions at odds with other aspects of state law. It has declined to intervene when the so-called Ag and Markets Law has been invoked at the local level to improperly exempt retail operations on farmland from public welfare and zoning requirements. To give just one example, Ag and Markets has been cited as overruling county health officials on refrigeration of prepared food at anything it considers a farm stand.
Even if we agree that some forms of agriculture should have special status normally, this is not a normal time. While it has acknowledged that the executive order was written to “assure uniform safety for everyone,” by allowing regular, non-maintenance aspects of landscaping to continue, the department has put workers and the people they come into contact with at increased risk. It is wrong that the department has put this workforce in danger of contracting coronavirus and outrageous that it has increased the chances that workers might pass it on to their families.
As aggressive as the PAUSE order may have seemed, the goal was to slow the speed with which the coronavirus charged through the population. Even if the Department of Agriculture and Markets continues to cling to its inflated ideas, landscape companies — as opposed to essential food producers — should view the risk with greater seriousness. This moment requires a stop to all horticultural activity other than maintenance of residential and commercial properties only when necessary for public safety and health and to control plant diseases. This is not the time for business as usual. Social distancing is not optional, even in the cab of a landscaper’s truck. Pretty lawns and gardens can wait until the crisis is over.
Workers must be protected first.