Local leaders differ on message to Adirondack travelers
Some say don't come. Some say if you do, self-quarantine. Some urge short-term rentals to close. Some don't say anything.
As people flee COVID-19 hotspots such as New York City and come to the Adirondacks, some — but not all — local officials are publicly urging those visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days before they go to shops or other public places.
Paul Maroun is one of those. He doubles as Tupper Lake village mayor and a Franklin County legislator, and he said the topic came up Tuesday morning in a daily phone conference among Franklin County officials.
Maroun said he knows people have come up to their second homes in the Tupper Lake area from New York City and Westchester County — epicenters of COVID-19 for the entire U.S. — and have then gone shopping in his community. He urged them to stay in self-quarantine for 14 days before they go out to shops or other public places.
The reason, he said, is that they’re more likely to be unwittingly carrying the virus than local residents who haven’t traveled.
“They’re In contact with regular people in the community if they go to a store, if they get take-out,” Maroun said. “They come up here thinking they’re in a cabin. … They go in Shaheen’s (supermarket) and buy $200 worth of meat, well, they’ve potentially infected (several people).”
He said he isn’t trying to stop people from coming here. Instead, he’s pleading with them to help protect the community they enjoy here.
“It’s not to be offensive, not to be mean,” he said. “It’s just common decency.”
So how should someone who just came up from a COVID-19 hotspot get food? Maroun didn’t have a solid answer to that question yet, as of Tuesday morning.
“They could call the stores to see if they can deliver,” he said. “If not, if they go into a store, they should wear a mask and gloves … and maybe have one person instead of everybody.
“If they call the village office, (518) 359-3341, we’ll try to find a way to get it to them. … I’m not saying we would be able to do them all, but …”
Maroun said some Tupper Lakers doubt how dangerous the new coronavirus is, but not him.
“There are still people that don’t believe this,” he said. “The odds are very high something is going to turn up in Franklin County eventually, and we want to be ready for it.
“This isn’t a joke.”
Brendan Keough, chief of the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department, was also on the Tuesday morning conference call. He and other fire chiefs are taking steps to make sure their firefighters don’t get infected.
“Two of our last three fire calls have been people from the city (New York City), and one was a couple staying in an Airbnb,” he said. He didn’t detail the fire calls but said they were typical of the kind his department at this time every year “as people are opening camps and Airbnbs.”
He said his fire department, as well as the Lake Placid, Tupper Lake, Paul Smiths-Gabriels and Bloomingdale volunteer fire departments and the Saranac Lake Police Department and Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad, are communicating with each other daily and trying to follow similar safety protocols.
The SLVFD has divided itself into two companies — named Woodruff and Miller for local historical figures — that each work 14-day stretches before handing off to the other. That limits the number of firefighters that come into contact with each other. Specialty teams such as diving and ice rescue will respond when those kinds of calls come through.
Thursday is normally the SLVFD’s training day, and this Thursday the department plans to conduct its first fire school class through internet conferencing using WebEx, a program it learned about from Franklin County officials.
“It’s been very useful for us,” Keough said.
Maroun said the village has also divided its departments’ staff so each worker interacts with fewer people. Similar steps have been taken by municipalities across the state in response to state recommendations.
Maroun also said he informed the governor’s office that Sunmount Developmental Disabilities Services Office in Tupper Lake — a former veterans hospital — has two buildings that could be converted for hospital beds if needed. It would take a lot of work, he added, but the Army Corps of Engineers and Navy Seabees might be able to do it.
“I think the governor has done an excellent job in terms of relaying to the people what’s going on, and I think he’s done an excellent job of (getting services where they’re needed),” Maroun, a Republican, said of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.
How does he feel about the federal government’s handling of the situation?
“I think they’re coming on board,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate they couldn’t pass the stimulus” to get money into hands of people who are out of work. “I think they’re moving in the right direction. They’ve got the smarts. They’ve got the knowledge and the science … but I hope we can move this along a little quicker.”
One state has gone further than just encouraging isolation. As of Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mandated anyone on a flight from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut to self-isolate for 14 days upon their arrival or face criminal penalty.
Saranac Lake village Mayor Clyde Rabideau doesn’t have the same approach as Maroun or DeSantis when it comes to visitors. He said Saranac Lake supports the current state initiatives and isn’t encouraging anything further. He said it’s not his position to make those calls.
“If somebody owns a house up here and pays taxes on it, they should be able to go to their own home,” he said. “We’re already supposed to be in lockdown and confined and practicing social distancing.”
In a letter released on Tuesday, North Elba Supervisor Jay Rand encouraged visitors to “limit travel to essential only.” It didn’t address self-isolation for visitors from downstate specifically.
The letter supported recent statements and initiatives from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Rand reiterated the governor’s 10-point PAUSE plan, Matilda’s Law and descriptions of essential businesses identified by the state.
Lake Placid is among the busiest tourist destinations in the Adirondacks and home to the most short-term vacation rentals in Essex County. Around 636 rentals on Airbnb and VRBO listed Lake Placid addresses as of Tuesday, according to AirDNA, a vacation rental data and analysis website.
“We’ve got non-essential travel coming into the area, some of which may be occupying vacation rentals and others may be in hotels, which are listed as essential businesses (by the state), but we have no mechanism for stopping that,” Lake Placid village Mayor Craig Randall said in a phone interview Tuesday. Randall didn’t address isolation, but he said he hopes fewer people travel to Lake Placid during the pandemic.
“There’s no reason for people to come here right now,” he said. “There are no businesses. There are no restaurants or bars open. There are no venues here. There are no events going on.”
He read a piece of a public statement he was working on.
“Hotel lodging is a listed essential service,” he said. “However, many of our local lodging establishments have elected to close at this time. Further, some local real estate offices have suspended taking vacation rental reservations during this period.”
Merrill L. Thomas, among the largest local real estate agencies in Lake Placid and owned by former North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi, announced on social media on Sunday that it would stop accepting vacation rental bookings for the month of April.
“We express our sincere appreciation for this and hope word spreads to others to defer their plans to spend time in Lake Placid until this current emergency has passed,” Randall said.
Between the coronavirus outbreak and the village’s recent adoption of new short-term rental regulations — which among other things establishes a registry and requires owners to apply for a permit to rent out their properties to vacationers — the number of Lake Placid listings online has plummeted in the last few days, though there are still hundreds of listings.
For the last few weeks, Wilmington town Supervisor Roy Holzer, in multiple posts on social media, has called for short-term vacation rental owners in his town to consider a self-imposed moratorium on accepting new bookings for the time being.
“I want to thank our Wilmington vacation rental hosts that have voluntarily ceased renting their places during this difficult and scary time in our world,” he wrote. “In fact, I know of rental owners that have offered their places in Wilmington for voluntary quarantine so the individuals can be reunited with their Wilmington family.”
The co-owner of Woodland Vacations in Wilmington, in a video posted on social media on Sunday, offered one of their short term rentals free to any healthcare worker in need of a place to stay.
The Essex County Board of Supervisors is asking people not to visit the Adirondacks during this time.
In a statement Tuesday, board chairman and Willsboro town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland said the county has limited medical and food resources.
“This is in keeping with federal and state mandates that people stay at home and stay put,” he said. “It is far better for you to stay home and limit your movements.”
Gillilland also encouraged people to pause their vacation rental operations.
“As we work together to minimize the spread of this virus across our most vulnerable populations, we respectfully ask that property owners comply with this request to limit new exposures and protect the health and welfare of all by removing short-term rental listings from services such as Airbnb and Vrbo, and not renting their short-term rentals,” he said.