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What Is Essential, and Why Stay Home

Wed, 04/29/2020 - 18:17

The point of the stay-home directive from state, local, and national leaders is to reduce the rapid spread of the deadly coronavirus outbreak. Yet it seems widely misunderstood, both here and across the country.

No one can yet say with certainty how many Americans are affected, much less East End residents. But it is clear that people are dying who would not under normal circumstances.

Essential industries and workers are exempt from the order, but what is essential and what is not still seems subject to interpretation.

Perhaps the most visible area of confusion here is landscaping. Mowing and other maintenance work is allowed; everything else is supposed to wait until the New York State on PAUSE executive order is lifted. Compliance has been mixed and enforcement sporadic. Regular, routine property work is going on despite the state directive, including tree planting, mulching, and clearing, each of which is arguably not essential. And in many, many cases, the laborers do not wear masks despite working in close proximity to each other.

We can understand this from the workers’ perspectives. Among them are improperly documented immigrants not eligible for most official forms of aid and for whom unemployment payments are off limits. Many were already living paycheck to paycheck when the virus struck. It is no surprise that some would want to continue working despite the known risk.

Some employers have also viewed the essential landscape exemption broadly and carried on business as usual. Laborers who otherwise would want to avoid contracting Covid-19 venture out to work anyway, for fear of losing their jobs. There is reason for concern that this vulnerable population already may be being taken advantage of by unscrupulous business operators looking to grab more clients while other firms follow the orders more rigorously. And property owners are responsible, too, eager to have their lawns and gardens looking perfect as if this were a normal time.

There is another issue of fairness here: It was clear from Wednesday’s “trade parade” traffic on Montauk Highway, that is was business as usual for many landscape companies. But missing almost altogether were construction vehicles. In fact, driving west just before 8 a.m., from Amagansett to Bridgehampton, we noticed just one builder’s van — a roofing company – amid scores of landscapers’ trucks going the other way. Guessing from the supplies many of them carried, not all were confining their laborers to essential mowing.

It is outrageous of local law enforcement to give one sector of the service economy a free pass while keeping the clampdown on another. If it is arguably safe enough for landscapers to get back on the job (which the state still says is not the case), it is also true for homebuilders. This obvious inequity needs to be addressed one way or the other. Either protect all nonessential workers or none.

The idea behind limiting people’s movements by stay-home requests and mandatory restaurant and retail closings is to keep the rate at which Covid-19 moves through the population below a level that would overwhelm hospitals. It is also to reduce deaths. However, with people working, jogging, rolling around on bicycles, joyriding to Montauk, and visiting beaches there will inevitably be an incremental increase.

In Suffolk County, there is a suspicious pattern in positive test results, which have consistently spiked on Wednesdays and Thursdays. While unproven, the one explanation might be that weekend activity increases transmission of the disease, and by mid-week, Long Islanders feel bad enough to seek testing.

Staying home also helps keep law enforcement and fire and ambulance free to respond to serious emergencies and limits exposures to the virus. There was an extraordinary scene in East Hampton on Saturday morning when a man working high in a tree was knocked nearly unconscious by a falling limb. Fire and E.M.S. responders had to follow elaborate protocols on the chance that in performing the rescue, they could be exposed to the disease.

So far, New York’s social-distance rules appear to have worked. The daily increases in confirmed cases of Covid-19 have declined, as has the death rate. But now is not the time to relax and return to business as usual.


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