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Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig: "It's Time For A Wake-Up Call"

Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig
oneonta.ny.us
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Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig

Just one week ago, the fall semester began at SUNY Oneonta. Now, the campus has been shut down for in-person activities for two weeks as authorities try to control the spread of COVID-19. Governor Andrew Cuomo and SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras made the announcement Sunday after 105 students tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Officials say off-campus parties appear to be the culprit, and Malatras says students who violate safety rules face discipline. Free community COVID testing will be available for all residents of Oneonta starting  Wednesday. Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus Monday morning.

What is the state of things in the city right now as it relates to COVID-19?

I think everybody is aware that as of yesterday, we had 105 new cases over the past week of COVID-19 amongst the students of SUNY Oneonta. You know, first let me say, this is not where we wanted to be, of course, but it's not a time for alarm. But it's certainly a time for a wake-up call. You know, we all read the stories in other parts of the country about how parties will lead to widespread contamination quickly. All of us young and old sometimes think, Well, that doesn't happen all the time. That may not happen here. Well, we have all learned a lesson in this time of COVID. Parties are dangerous and things spread quickly.

It was so quick after students returned to campus that the school had to be shut down again. How did this happen? I mean, as you say, we've been studying superspreader events for the last six months. How did this happen so quickly?

Well, the first weekend back was a disappointment. We were prepared. Friday night was quiet. Saturday night took us by surprise. Our police were out patrolling in force. They came across a number of house parties, some small and some large. Apparently the tracing that has been done has indicated that it was those house parties that facilitated the spread.

Assuming that the campus reopens with on-campus classes and in-person instruction in a couple weeks, how do you prevent this from happening again?

Well, you know, that is what we need to work on. First of all, let me say that the first steps have been very positive. The chancellor, the governor, the Department of Health Commissioner, have been on top of this right from the start. In addition to the shutdown, they sent a team of tracers and investigators here. The college president has now implemented a zero tolerance policy. If you break any ordinances in the city off campus, you go home. And the governor is setting up three testing sites here for the public, free rapid testing for the residents ,and that'll serve two purposes. It will one, allay any fears that residents have of having contracted the virus, as well as when we get the results, it will tell us as to whether there has been a transmission of the virus into the year-round population as well as the student population.

If you're a person who lives in Oneonta listening to this interview, and you're not a college student, you didn't go to one of these parties over the weekend, what's your message to that person? Should everyone be getting tested right now?

I would encourage anyone who has any concern, thinks that they may have been in contact with somebody, thinks they may have been at a location that puts them at risk, to go ahead and get tested. It is free. It is by appointment. And I would encourage people to get tested, it's good information. Hopefully we'll find out that there is a very, very low positive rate and there has not been significant transmission. But it's important for us to know that.

Listening to your comments in this interview, and there's been some published reporting about your thoughts on SUNY’s preparation for the fall semester, how are you getting along with the college president now? Is it fair to say that that you thought they were a little bit behind the curve and getting ready for the return of students?

There's going to be plenty of opportunity in the future to analyze what could have or should have been done differently. Right now, we have to be lockstep working together. Everyone in the community, college, the college president, myself, in making sure that we move out of this. That means that we're all speaking with one voice. We're all in agreement upon the decisions that have to be made as we go forward. And we need to lay out in unison the steps that we are going to be taking to curtail this and then prevent any future outbreaks. And we have to be very, very clear with the public and specific as to the action steps that we'll be taking.

There are 64 SUNY campuses, each in its own community. And many of them have already reported certain issues on campus in terms of students not abiding by social distancing. You know, 43 students were suspended from SUNY Plattsburgh this weekend, the University at Albany has grappled with its own big parties. What's your advice for other municipal leaders who might be looking at Oneonta and saying, boy, we don't want that happening here?

Well, I think that one thing we've learned is all of the college campuses have excellent plans for keeping the students safe on campus. Their interactions are greatly restricted. And honestly, you know, I feel for the students; it's not the way you want to go to college. But the greatest risk takes place off campus, that’s where students tend to party was get together, participate in social activities. So it's very important that the campuses, the local communities are working hand in hand whether it's through education, communication or enforcement in monitoring off campus activities equally to what goes on on-campus.

On another subject, what is the state of the city's finances today given the pandemic?

You know, we are very fortunate here. The City of Oneonta is going to come out of this bruised, but standing stronger than most. We went into this with healthy reserves. And that is because we are actually riding on the shoulders of people who came before us who were very conservative and recognized that rainy days do come and left us with very healthy reserves. So we are we have not had to lay off any of our employees, which I'm proud to say. We are moving forward with our projects, whether they're infrastructure or economic development.

People have come together in the city of Oneonta, the business community, the Chamber of Commerce. Everybody has been great, with a positive ‘we're in this together’ attitude. And we've had great innovation. We've closed our main street to traffic every Saturday day and night this summer to allow the restaurants to increase their footprint out into the street. People have really enjoyed that. So, you know, I am proud of the people of this city, the business community, the not-for-profit community. They have all come together to help us weather this storm.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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