Rockland County, New York, a densely populated suburban enclave immediately north of New York City, remains one of the state’s COVID-19 hot spots.
With an official tally of more than 41,000 positive infections since the start of the pandemic, the 325,000-person county has the highest per-capita case rate in the state. In the past seven days alone, the county’s average number of daily cases is the sixth-highest in the state outside of New York City.
That’s why the county’s leaders and representatives ― in both Albany and Washington ― are wondering why Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) administration has not yet erected even a temporary state-run mass vaccination site there.
“It’s frustrating,” said Ed Day, the Republican executive of Rockland County. “The numbers demand it, frankly. You just shake your head and get quizzical after a while.”
But though the state has announced plans to set up vaccination sites in Orange County ― as well as Ulster County, which is much more sparsely populated than Rockland ― plans for a similar facility in Rockland have not been forthcoming. Other counties with smaller populations, such as Albany County, where the capital is located, already have a mass vaccination site.
Given the puzzling absence of a vaccine site in the county and conversations that Cuomo’s vaccine czar Larry Schwartz has reportedly had with other county officials to assess their political loyalty to Cuomo, some Rocklanders believe that Cuomo is depriving the county of a mass vaccination state to punish Day, a political rival.
Although Day told HuffPost that Schwartz has never tried to assess his views on the scandals now besieging Cuomo ― or any other political matter ― their rivalry is a matter of public record. Day has even hinted at plans of a gubernatorial run in 2022.
“Cuomo does not like Ed Day. And Ed Day does not like Cuomo. That is obviously the biggest reason” that Rockland County doesn’t have a state-run mass vaccination site, said Hunter Petro, a prominent Democratic activist in the county.
Meredith Wisner, chair of the Rockland County Working Families Party, a progressive group, said Cuomo’s “personal animosity towards Ed Day” is “the only logical explanation” for the lack of a state-run mass vaccination site in the county.
And New York Assemblyman Mike Lawler, a Republican who represents Rockland County in the state legislature, offered a similar assessment.
“We’re an incredibly diverse county that deserves a mass vaccination site and it appears as if the only reason Andrew Cuomo is withholding one is over political differences,” Lawler said in a statement. “He needs to stop playing politics with people’s lives and work with County Executive Ed Day and other local elected officials to get shots in arms.”
Asked whether he believed Cuomo’s political considerations were to blame for the lack of a mass vaccination site, Jones said simply, “We have a Republican county executive who’s been railing against the governor for years.”
Jack Sterne, a spokesperson for Cuomo, denied the allegation of politically motivated foul play.
“Public health is above partisanship, and vaccine allocation decisions are based solely on analytic criteria, not politics,” Sterne said in a statement.
Given limited resources, New York state decided that Rockland County’s proximity to a mass vaccination site in Westchester County made it a lower priority for a mass vaccination site than other regions further north “to provide greater geographic reach across the region,” according to Sterne.
“In an ideal world, we could stand up mass vaccination sites in every county, but we live in a world with limited resources — especially vaccine doses — and we have to choose locations that create geographic equity within regions of the state,” he said.
To understand Rocklanders’ suspicions though, it is important to appreciate the reasons why county officials are so adamant about the need for a mass vaccination site. The county currently has the capacity to administer 1,000 vaccines a day, but a mass vaccination site would allow the county to administer 15,000 vaccines a day, according to Day. Day also told HuffPost that he was in the process of signing forms to authorize a state-run site in the county, but that the process stalled inexplicably. (Sterne, Cuomo’s spokesperson, said that the state works closely with Day to provide adequate vaccinations.)
The push for a mass vaccination site in the county cuts across party lines.
Democratic state Sens. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick and James Skoufis, and Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, all of whom represent parts of Rockland, have introduced legislation that would require the state to erect permanent vaccination sites in Rockland and Orange counties.
It’s hard to come up with a justifiable reason why a county with all of these things should not have a state-run mass vaccination site. New York State Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick (D)
“It’s hard to come up with a justifiable reason why a county with all of these things should not have a state-run mass vaccination site,” Reichlin-Melnick told HuffPost, citing the county’s population size, high infection rate and relatively scarce public transportation infrastructure.
Rockland County lacks the extensive commuter rail network and proximity to New York City available in Westchester County, the suburban enclave across the Hudson River. As a result, seniors and people with medical conditions not only have to navigate the state’s byzantine website and ― until Wednesday ― strict eligibility requirements, but also correctly identify a pharmacy with vaccines left. If, like many of the county’s oldest and most impoverished residents, they don’t have a car, they then have to find a way to get there.
By contrast, setting up a mass vaccination site at Rockland Community College ― a location touted by many local officials ― would make vaccination a stop away on a central public bus line.
“My office hears from dozens of people a day who are desperate” to find a vaccination site, Reichlin-Melnick said. “It feels to people like almost this sort of lottery system that’s deeply unfair because it rewards people who have the wherewithal to be able to invest and figure out these complicated systems in order to get their doses, and people who don’t ... just find it incredibly challenging.”
Nonetheless, nearly 23% of Rockland County has had one vaccination shot. It’s a vaccination rate that is about in line with the state as a whole ― but lower than neighboring Westchester, where more than 26% of residents have received a shot, or Manhattan, where more than 27% of residents have gotten their first shot.
In addition, Rockland County is home to one of the country’s largest concentrations of ultra-Orthodox Jews. These devout Jewish communities, where large families and dense living are the norm, were hit especially hard by COVID-19. Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders are still reeling from comments Cuomo made in October singling out ultra-Orthodox communities in Rockland County as COVID-19 hot spots in need of stricter lockdowns and tougher enforcement of public health rules.
For Cuomo to shower critical attention on the community then, but not to extend extra help to the region now is particularly frustrating, according to Yossi Gestetner, a Rockland County resident and executive director of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council.
“This county and other counties that were held up as examples of problem areas ― why don’t they get comparable help from the government?” Gestetner asked.
For those who persist in the belief that Cuomo has picked a fight with Day in particular, there is no shortage of bad blood to point to.
Over the years, Day has attacked Cuomo for shifting spending obligations onto localities, proposing new underground power lines, and allegedly refusing to heed Day’s requests for a COVID-19 containment zone in the county.
Day insists that he has “not had any overt issues with the governor.”
Yet he has still had plenty of criticism for what he considers the state’s unduly top-down approach to managing the pandemic, particularly given Rockland County government’s experience controlling a measles outbreak in 2019.
“We have been in the dark from Day One and that has been one of the primary complaints of every county executive,” Day said. “We had the expertise.”
At the same time, someone active in Rockland County politics, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from Cuomo, told HuffPost that the governor and Day’s mutual enmity is likely just one of the factors behind vaccination issues in Rockland County.
“Once the scandal with the nursing homes started to percolate, I have detected that the governor’s staff has lost focus,” the person said. “That contributed to the issues with the vaccine in Rockland County.” (The FBI is investigating whether Cuomo deliberately concealed the number of nursing home coronavirus-related deaths, after ordering the homes to accept COVID-19-positive patients.)
And unlike Reichlin-Melnick, Skoufis, Jones and virtually every Republican in the state legislature, Day has not called for Cuomo’s resignation ― or weighed in one way or another on the scandals surrounding Cuomo from sexual misconduct allegations.
Neither Day nor Reichlin-Melnick were willing to speculate about ulterior motives that Cuomo might harbor.
“I think it’s enough to simply look at the reasons why we need to have one in this county and every other similarly situated county in the state does at this point and ask the question why it’s the case that Rockland’s been left out,” Reichlin-Melnick said.