Monroe County leaders appreciate local discretion for COVID-19 rules

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Rochester area health and educational leaders cheered news that New York’s new Governor Kathy Hochul wants to see widespread masking and vaccinations to fight COVID-19 but some also said current limits on the state’s power to impose mandates could be helpful to communities trying to strike the right balance.

“In general, one size does not fit all when it comes to COVID,” said Monroe County Public Health Commissioner Michael Mendoza.

When it comes to COVID-19 policy, vaccines, masks… area leaders and medical experts say they are looking to the state for guidance but they do appreciate having some of their own discretion, instead of a series of statewide rules.

In her comments on MSNBC on Wednesday, Gov. Hochul pointed out the state’s powers to force policies statewide are limited.

That means much decision-making remains with local municipalities.

“We’ve been working with them to make sure that there’s as much local control as possible so there’s as much flexibility as possible,” said Monroe County Executive Adam Bello.

Last year, under emergency powers given to then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, the state touched off controversy with broad mandates on masks and the closing of public businesses. Without those powers, many policies of last year would be impossible.

Mendoza said some of them ended up being less than scientific, like those red yellow and orange zones.

“It turned out that we had streets that were divided into where there was really no logical reason to divide them into two,” he recalled. “So, if something like that to go into effect this year, regardless of who would implement that, we would want to make sure that that’s driven by something more precise than simply broad stroke across the street.”

Mendoza said he’s had numerous conversations, especially with education leaders trying to do the right thing, but also to balance their real-world coronavirus situation with the needs of their kids.

“Many of the school superintendents would like to have the ability to reevaluate and that’s what I want to work with them on," Mendoza said. "So if the data tells us to go left, right, that’s where we go.”

Limits on the power of the governor to respond to COVID can be lifted again if the state legislature agrees to, but Assemblyman Josh Jensen (R-Greece) says some lawmakers have taken a lesson from their decision last year to give vast emergency powers to Cuomo.

“We saw the dangers of giving that level of power to one individual,” Jensen said. “I think myself and a lot of my colleagues from both parties would be very reluctant to return to a place of governing where one person makes decisions for the entire state.“

Local school leaders have told News10NBC they like now being able to make their own calls on masking, testing, social distancing, and being able to change those decisions as their covid numbers change.

Jensen says any big new mandates from the state legislature will have to be not-so-big, and as precise as lawmakers can make them.

“I think there is a real reluctance to anything that is broad,” he predicted. “Anything should be extremely narrow, with a check by the legislature… And a defined end date.”

Bello pointed out that local COVID-19 infection rates are high at the moment, but that could change, especially relative to places like New York City, or Long Island, and he wants Rochester area communities to be able to respond to their local realities.

“We all want to get back to normal at some point,” Bello said. “So, the more local control that you have, so you can follow the data, was important to us.”