As State of Emergency Ends, County Executives Release Book that Chronicles the COVID Pandemic’s ‘Darkest Hours’ to Share Critical Lessons Learned
If you don't remember history, you are doomed to repeat it.
If you don't remember history, you are doomed to repeat it. When COVID-19 exploded in Westchester County in March of 2020, governments, institutions and the public were largely unprepared for what was to come. Over the next 16 months, many painful and costly lessons were learned. Lessons that could save lives when the next pandemic strikes.
That's why New York's county executives commissioned a new book that chronicles the county response through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The book, Our Darkest Hours: New York County Leadership & the COVID Pandemic, documents and shares the hard lessons learned during this once-in-a-century public health crisis.
“The State of Emergency may be coming to an end in the State of New York, but we cannot and should not forget that there were too many lives lost and too many livelihoods disrupted to let the experience gained during this crisis be lost to history,” said Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, the immediate president of the bi-partisan New York State County Executives' Association, which commissioned the book. “We felt very strongly that the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic needed to be told so that the next generation of local leaders are better prepared when disaster strikes.”
Part I of the book comes directly from the written or oral histories submitted by county executives to document what happened in their county. These riveting first-person accounts provide a glimpse into the fear, struggle, triumph, and pain that local leaders faced as they worked to protect their residents from an invisible and insidious enemy.
“The work that we did to stop the spread of the virus and get our communities vaccinated may be the most important work we have ever done as county leaders,” said NYSCEA President Marcus Molinaro. “We owed it to the county leaders who come after us to provide an accurate and unvarnished account of what happened so that when it's their turn to step up as onsite incident commanders, they don't have to re-learn the same hard lessons.”
Part II provides a public policy account of the fractured federal and state response to COVID-19 and explores the economic impact of New York on Pause, the unprecedented state executive powers, and the diminution of local home rule. The Appendices include material relating to congressional actions, the state's executive orders, and cases and COVID deaths by county by month from March 15, 2020 to March 15, 2021.
“This book is a commemoration of the struggle and the hardship and what the county leaders went through during the height of the pandemic. They were the ones on the ground working seven days a week for 18 months, coordinating efforts to secure PPE, enforce mask and social distancing mandates while also encouraging residents to check on their neighbors and support struggling local businesses,” said NYSAC Executive Director Stephen Acquario, one of the book's co-authors. “These are stories that needed to be documented for posterity. They must not be forgotten.”
In addition to publishing a written history of the pandemic from the county perspective, NYSAC has developed a special edition County Leadership and the COVID Pandemic podcast series which uses first-person recordings collected during the creation of this book to bring listeners into the room with County Executives as they recall the harrowing early days of the pandemic and how counties innovated and adapted to respond to the virus and protect their communities. Listen to Episode I here, Episode II here, and Episode III here.
Our Darkest Hours: New York County Leadership and the COVID Pandemic, co-authored by Stephen Acquario, Peter Golden and Mark LaVigne, is available for purchase online from Archway Publishing, Amazon and Barnes and Noble for $19.99 (softcover) and $37.95 (hardcover), as well as Kindle and Nook versions for $4.99. All proceeds from the book will be donated to Feeding New York State, which supports the ten regional food banks that have been feeding the hardest hit New Yorkers.
From Chapter 23: Tilting the Power Structure in New York
The language was simple. The ramifications were more complicated.
During the late hours of Monday, March 2, more than two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, the State Legislature passed Governor Program Bill 8. This legislation provided for a $40 million public health emergency appropriation for the governor to fight the pandemic. The bill's language also gave Governor Cuomo unprecedented powers in an unprecedented time, the largest and most aggressive global public health crisis in more than 100 years. These powers allowed him to make laws without a vote of state lawmakers.
In fact, the State Legislature shaped how the governor could use these executive powers to fight the pandemic by expanding his powers and making it clear that under law a virus such as COVID-19 could qualify as a statewide emergency. New York Executive Law, Section 29a was changed to now read (in relevant parts with changes in brackets and underlined):
Subject to the state constitution, the federal constitution and federal statutes and regulations, the governor may by executive order temporarily suspend [specific provisions of] any statute, local law, ordinance, or orders, rules or regulations, or parts thereof, of any agency during a state disaster emergency, if compliance with such provisions would prevent, hinder, or delay action necessary to cope with the disaster or if necessary to assist or aid in coping with such disaster. The governor, by executive order, may issue any directive during a state disaster emergency declared in the following instances: fire, flood, earthquake, hurricane, tornado, high water, landslide, mudslide, wind, storm, wave action, volcanic activity, epidemic, disease outbreak, air contamination, terrorism, cyber event, blight, drought, infestation, explosion, radiological accident, nuclear, chemical, biological, or bacteriological release, water contamination, bridge failure or bridge collapse. Any such directive must be necessary to cope with the disaster and may provide for procedures reasonably necessary to enforce such directive.
The clear inclusion of “epidemic” and “disease outbreak” as emergencies that would qualify under these expanded gubernatorial powers helped keep future challenges to this authority at bay. There is little case law that defines the extent of the reach of executive orders (EO) in the declaration of a statewide emergency, which is more commonly used for natural disasters such as high-level floods, hurricanes, ice storms, or superstorms like Irene, which slammed New York State just over a decade ago. The unprecedented redistribution of power, included as part of the state's coronavirus response efforts, gave the governor these emergency powers for more than a year, until April 1, 2021. The powers were revoked in an act signed by the Legislature, which was signed by the governor on March 7, 2021.
Five days after the State Legislature granted him these extraordinary powers, on March 7, 2020, he signed his first COVID-19 Executive Order 202, declaring “a State disaster emergency for the entire State of New York. This Executive Order shall be in effect until September 7, 2020.”
Media Contact: Mark LaVigne | MLavigne@nysac.org | 518-465-1473 x206