The long-term political implications of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent near-lockdown of New York state aren’t quite clear yet.
Some elections have been delayed. Events have been canceled. And some lawmakers are pushing for expanded vote-by-mail to allow ballots to be cast from the safety of a voter’s home.
It’s possible, though, that it’s never been easier to gather lawmakers in one place as they take to online videoconferencing like Zoom and Facebook Live for town hall events. While conflicting sessions in Washington, Albany and lower Manhattan might keep elected officials busy and unable to gather in person under normal circumstances, it’s the coronavirus pandemic that has kept them apart this spring — at least physically.
From home, though, town hall meetings can be accessible to anyone, tuning in from their home computers or calling in on a cell phone.
That’s how U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, Councilman Andrew Cohen, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, and state Sen. Jamaal Bailey came together on April 21 to discuss the state of the northwest Bronx at every level — from federal to city.
Moderator Gary Axelbank got right to an issue that’s been circulating for weeks: An update on mail delivery, a hot topic for the last few weeks, especially in the 10463 and 10471 ZIP codes.
“We didn’t receive mail for days on end,” Engel said. “I called the people at the post office in Washington. They have a real problem. It isn’t only lack of money, it’s also that they have employees who didn’t show up for work.”
That, of course, relates back to issues with the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit some of public services the hardest, like police, emergency medical first responders, transit operators, and of course, carriers with the U.S. Postal Service.
Engel and other Democrats in Washington had pushed to provide the postal service with an “infusion of cash” to better encourage employees to take the job more seriously, and keep the struggling service afloat. But that was met with resistance from President Trump, who pushed the postal service to raise delivery prices, making it clear he would refuse to sign a relief bill unless it included higher prices passed on to consumers.
Locally, however, those awaiting mail delivery in the northwest Bronx have been hit especially hard. Some of its satellite locations — like one on West 238th Street — struggled to keep employees on the clock, while at least one sick worker at the Kingsbridge post office on Broadway threw a wrench in operations there, Dinowitz said.
“They had to shut the place down. They had to disinfect the place, and a lot of people wouldn’t come to work,” according to the Assemblyman. “As a result, for weeks on end, we got very little mail.”
Service has gotten “much, much better” since then as local elected officials pushed those in Washington, Dinowitz said. Still, some are going days between mail deliveries.
While mail delivery is important every day, there’s a looming deadline that’s even more important to ensure mail service is back on track: June 23, New York’s primary election. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order April 24 requiring an absentee ballot with return postage be mailed to every registered voter in the state.
The primary already has been delayed once, and with uncertainty about which social distancing measures will still be in place once summer comes, Cuomo wants to ensure everyone is able to fill out a ballot, whether or not they can get to their polling place.
“If we want to make sure our democracy continues to function properly, this is something that we have to ensure we get right,” Bailey said. “If we cannot make sure, people will lose faith in the system. They need to have the confidence that their vote will be counted if it’s sent by mail, if it’s sent by absentee in the mail. We have to make sure, if we do nothing else, we get it right by June 23.”
One part of the primary the state won’t have to get right is the presidential side. After Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out, all who was remaining was former vice president Joe Biden. With the coronavirus pandemic continuing, state Democrats decided to pull the plug on the presidential side.
Local elections will continue, however, including the battle among the five Democrats jostling for Engel’s seat in Washington.
Each of their names will be on the ballot this summer.
The next issue? Saving small businesses in the city — something Cohen has been busy with at the city council level.
“I will say that it’s a little bit of breaking news that (on April 22) I’m going to introduce a bill that has the support of the Speaker that’s going to waive the sidewalk café fees,” Cohen said. “Many, many small businesses — the Yo Burger, Tin Marin — (where) people have paid, and they’re not going to be able to use their sidewalk cafes.”
The bill will refund fees already paid, and if it turns out to be safe to use sidewalk space during the summer, businesses will be able to utilize their space without paying.
Cohen’s bill was part of a COVID-19 relief package introduced in the city council last week. Other measures in that package move to protect gig workers — like Uber drivers and people who work for delivery services like Seamless — and so-called “essential” workers, increase rent protections for tenants, and suspend personal liability on commercial leases, which is intended to prevent business owners from financial devastation if they’re unable to pay rent for commercial space.
“The council is looking for creative ways to support small business because they’re the financial backbone of the city, the largest employer, ultimately, and pathway into the middle class,” Cohen said.
Of course, what the Bronx — and New York City as a whole — will look like in coming months is anyone’s guess. As infection rates in the city have flattened, the Bronx has emerged as the borough with the highest number of cases per 100,000 residents. Part of that is related to pre-existing conditions of coronavirus patients in the borough, according to some preliminary studies, and the fact that Bronx County ranks last in health outcomes in the state.
Both Dinowitz and Bailey said they supported the New York Health Act, which would provide universal health care to all New Yorkers. The inequalities exposed by the pandemic only reinforced Bailey’s belief in free health care.
“These are the folks in my community that I represent,” the senator said, “That have these co-morbidities, that are suffering, that are dying every single day in their homes. We’ve got to figure something out. I think we’re going to figure something out because we don’t have a choice but to reimagine it.”