President, Mayor Divided,
Particularly On Bus Issue
This is a time for unity against an implacable foe.
Five months into the COVID-19 threat, it’s hard to see the future clearly. There have been worldwide epidemics before, but not since the Flu Pandemic of 1919, and not in a world so interconnected by travel and commerce. A vaccine will eventually surface, but how soon, and how quickly would it become widely available?
Still, while not uniform across the country or the world, the progress to control the disease in our Empire State has been astonishing. Governor Cuomo has been almost giddy at his daily briefings over the past week, reporting an infection rate of less than 1 percent for a 10th day in a row.
Just weeks after filling mass graves, 100 bodies at a time, in New York City, our governor can say to us: “I congratulate New Yorkers for doing what people said couldn’t be done.”
Here in Otsego County, now is the time to again do what some people say can’t be done:
Reabsorb 8,000 college students, overnight doubling the number of people in our county’s population center, the City of Oneonta.
There are no guarantees, but Hartwick College’s regimen is reassuring. Students must be tested for COVID-19 before arriving on campus this weekend, and must be tested again before classes begin the following Monday. Students are required to live on campus, so its 1,200 scholars can more easily be kept at a distance from the city at large.
SUNY Oneonta has also put together an impressive plan to keep COVID-19 at bay, including seven- and 14-day self-quarantines for arriving students.
Some individual initiatives are particularly impressive: Safety Officer Lachlan Squair’s innovative waste-water testing, in collaboration with Cornell and SU, and CGP’s Erik Stengler – he’s actually a science professor – ensuring social distancing at the Otsego Lake-side campus, have surfaced in the past few days.
Undoubtedly there are many more heroes of the moment, if you will, at SUNY Oneonta and Hartwick too.
SUNY, however, presents a particular challenge. It has 6,500 students, four times Hartwick’s. Half of them live off campus, and will be going back and forth daily.
So it was troubling to learn this week that Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig and the SUNY administration aren’t in total amity heading into one of the most important weeks of 131 years of town-gown relations.
It’s a shame the SUNY Oneonta administration couldn’t fully collaborate in circulating the mayor’s letter of welcome – and of caution – to its students, as Hartwick did. According to Herzig, College President Barbara Jean Morris thought there was too much of an “us-vs-them” tone, but a neutral reading of the letter – it is reprinted on page A4 – doesn’t support that.
Likewise, Hartwick College and Hillside Commons agreed with City Hall’s plan to suspend evening shuttle-bus routes from the campuses into the city, but SUNY couldn’t bring itself to do so.
Finally, it appeared the mayor hadn’t been fully briefed on SUNY’s testing plans – waste-water testing, the college health center’s role, and an “opting in” to Upstate Medical’s services – as he should have been.
We are where we are. Those decisions have been made, (although the shuttle-bus alternative should be monitored and revisited, if advisable.)
What’s most important is for Mayor Herzig and President Morris to sit down, immediately, and revisit what’s happened to their relationship, and establish – or reestablish – a level of trust, cooperation and open communications as we enter an uncharted and imponderable future.
Given what’s already happened at UNC, that relationship is going to be important to everyone living in Oneonta and Otsego County at large, given how our local economy – and thus our lives and livelihoods – is dependent on thriving colleges, and functioning ones.