A refurbished runway at the Westchester County Airport opened Thursday morning. The main runway was closed at the end of April for repaving. The project was moved up from the fall given little flight activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne has more on the coronavirus response in Westchester and Dutchess.
Westchester County Airport Manager Peter Scherrer says the main runway, or runway 16/34, was repaved in three weeks’ time, a project that would have lasted three months outside the COVID-19 crisis.
“By doing it this way, we actually shaved off three months of construction that would have taken quite a bit of time, a lot of night work and we really improved the quality of the work of this runway, which goes to say to all the users that we’re giving you a good, long-term runway for your use for the future business here at Westchester Airport,” says Scherrer.
George Latimer is Westchester County executive.
“The work had originally been scheduled to take place later this year, in the fall, and the completion date was originally scheduled for October,” Latimer says. “So this may be one of those historic moments, that’s actually a government construction project that actually finished sooner than was planned. You may live a long time before you see another one of those.”
“We got 1,900 employees here that depend on this runway. We got, we support 6,550 jobs nationwide. Our economic impact is over $8 million to the local community,” Scherrer says. “So this runway pays for a lot of things that go on and a lot of jobs are related on this runway. We must maintain it, we must keep it in tip-top shape at all times.”
Westchester County Department of Public Works & Transportation Commissioner Hugh Greechan talks about the cost of the project.
“$19 million came from the federal government, so $1 million came from the state DOT [Department of Transportation] and $1 million is put in capital bonding for the county, but that’s all paid up by airport user fees, so there’s not tax dollars spent on this project,” Greechan says. “That’s $21 million that the county got.”
Latimer emphasizes that the project was not to expand the airport, a local concern, but solely a repaving that runways require every 20 years or so. He says any remaining construction will take place during overnight hours, and the final completion date of October 10 has been moved up to mid-August.
Latimer also delivered his daily COVID-19 update, saying there have been 1,305 deaths: 4 percent of all who tested positive for COVID-19. Some 128,000 have been tested, or nearly 13 percent of Westchester’s population. In addition, antibody testing began May 4 at the Westchester County Center, first for first responders. The testing is now open to the general public. Latimer underscored the importance of mask wearing and social distancing.
“They’ll be a time, as the Byrds once sang and the Pete Seeger song ‘Turn, Turn, Turn,’ there’s a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,” Latimer says. “This is kind of the time to refrain from embracing.”
Latimer, a Democrat, believes the Hudson Valley is close to reopening, ahead of Long Island and New York City. Also on Wednesday, Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro held a COVID-19 update on Facebook.
“We are very close to beginning Phase 1 opening here in the Mid-Hudson Region,” Molinaro says.
He says Dutchess has met all of the state’s metrics to reopen, as has Ulster County. Westchester, which along with Rockland is included in the seven-county Mid-Hudson Region, has not. Counties may not open individually, only regions. Rockland was cleared to restart elective surgeries in hospitals on Thursday. Both Latimer and Molinaro emphasized the need for contact tracers.
“We have 91, 92 already dedicated contact tracers,” says Molinaro. “Our goal is to augment our team to include 250 total contact tracers here in Duchess County.”
He says many of the 92 are county employees.
“We don’t have any more money in county government to hire more people. So we’re asking to augment our team through volunteers,” says Molinaro. “And, at the same time, if you wish to volunteer with us, you can still apply to work as a paid contact tracer for the state of New York.”
Molinaro says one of the current impediments to the Mid-Hudson region’s approval to begin Phase 1 reopening is a recent change made to the requirement for contact tracers. While Dutchess County meets the state-mandated metric of 30 contact tracers per 100,000 population; the Mid-Hudson Regional Control Room announced earlier this week that the number of contact tracers for the region would now be based on infection rate, rather than population, with more than 1,800 contact tracers needed across the region.
In Dutchess, volunteers undergo four hours of training, work remotely to contact COVID-positive individuals and re-trace their steps to identify others with whom they may have come in contact and possibly exposed to COVID-19, to contain the spread.