Lawmakers Prep Coronavirus Bills as Cuomo Leads Immediate Response

March 11, 2020

by Cayla Harris | Times Union

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, and State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, left, answers questions during a news briefing where he provided updates on state coronavirus infections, and measures being taken to mitigate its dispersion on Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. Photo Credit: Will Waldron/Times Union)Will Waldron/Albany Times Union

ALBANY – As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo leads the state’s coronavirus response, state legislators are scrambling behind-the-scenes at the Capitol to curb potential fallout from the illness on businesses, elections and schools.

The virus has infected more than 200 people statewide, including the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, though there are no confirmed cases in Albany, where lawmakers are three months into a front-loaded legislative session. The coronavirus has overshadowed nearly all other legislative priorities in Albany, with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins on Wednesday saying that other issues have been sidelined as “our priority is always going to be public health.”

State lawmakers have considered a slew of measures in response to the coronavirus and its related economic, social and health impacts – the most high-profile being a paid sick leave guarantee for private sector workers affected by the virus. That bill is being negotiated within the governor’s office and in both legislative chambers, but is expected to be voted on early next week, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie told reporters Tuesday.

Other proposals floated over the past week include increasing penalties for price gouging, permitting absentee ballots in the event of a public health crisis, protecting state funding for schools that close because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and bolstering pay for retired police officers and health care workers during states of emergency.

With the biggest legislative push behind the paid sick leave bill, it’s unclear how many other proposals will make it through the committee process this month. The Legislature is, by nature, a slow-moving body dealing with a rapidly evolving pandemic, and lawmakers are in continuous talks behind closed doors to see how, if at all, they can lend a hand.

“We are going to look at a number of different issues including price gouging, resources and insurance issues,” said Senate Majority spokesman Mike Murphy. “This is an all-hands-on-deck situation by all branches of government.”

State Sen. Peter Harckham, D-Westchester County, on Wednesday announced four bills he is championing in response to the pandemic, including a measure to provide interest-free loans to small businesses affected by community shutdowns from the illness. He said lawmakers “understand the urgency behind the need for some of this legislation,” and members are discussing what issues to tackle first.

“We have to consider a way to fast-track these,” he said. “We need to have the supports in place now. Six months may be too late.”

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, added that many legislators are in a constant information-gathering-and-disseminating phase, receiving updates from both the governor’s and New York City mayor’s offices each afternoon. Like other lawmakers, she has directed staff to provide updates to constituents through email blasts and other methods of communication.

Biaggi introduced the bill to permit absentee ballots in the midst of a public health crisis. She’s also looking at measures to bolster health insurance for airport workers and ensure that New Yorkers have access to medication that they receive on a regular basis.

There is also the possibility that some coronavirus-related legislation could make its way into the state budget due by April 1. Lawmakers are in the final stages of budget negotiations, with the one-house bills for both chambers expected next week.

When asked whether the budget could be “scaled down” – with some priorities unrelated to the coronavirus, including marijuana legalization, possibly pushed off the negotiating table – Stewart-Cousins said “It's reasonable to think that, because we're so focused on how will we manage this situation, that a lot of conversation will happen around that and the implications of that.”

Heastie clarified that there have been no discussions of a rushed budget or ending the six-month session in response to coronavirus fears, telling reporters: “We are government, and we … feel we should be the most responsible people in the state and provide leadership. So, we're going to do our jobs.”

Cuomo, for his part, has taken the lead on immediate coronavirus response, most recently permitting paid sick leave for state workers who are under mandatory or voluntary quarantine. He has also instituted a one-mile containment zone in New Rochelle, the Westchester County city where the most confirmed cases have been concentrated.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, who sponsors the price gouging prevention bill, said the Legislature “can support the governor in his efforts to make sure life continues as is in our state as well as it can under the circumstances.” And then, he added, they can advocate for some of the longer-term priorities – including making sure New Yorkers aren’t paying exorbitant amounts of money for medical supplies.