Steve Bellone's week at home in quarantine
"I just got confirmation," an aide to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone told officials gathered in a 12th-floor conference room in county offices in Hauppauge last Saturday.
"Peter is infected with coronavirus."
The room fell silent for a moment, Bellone said.
"And then it was, wow, OK … Let's follow protocol," Bellone recalled.
With that, the offices shut down and health officials were called in. Peter Scully, a deputy county executive, was put into quarantine, as were Suffolk's health commissioner and others who had had close contact with him.
Bellone, who had spent less time with Scully, went into voluntary quarantine.
The move left the top elected official in the state's largest county to manage COVID-19 pandemic response from a 10-by-12-foot room in the back of his West Babylon home.
Day One, Sunday, March 15:
Bellone spends his first full day working from his children's playroom.
And he's got to be careful, because, he said, he doesn't want to pass any potential infection on to his wife, Tracey, or the three kids — two of whom had the flu.
"I went from being careful to not to bring flu to the office to being careful not to bring the [coronavirus] home to my family," Bellone said.
So he isolated himself — in a room with two beanbags stacked atop one another, his son's beloved Xbox (and Madden NFL video game), footballs and lacrosse uniforms. There's also a Peloton bike, on which Bellone fit in 20 minutes that day.
There's also a desk with a computer on which Bellone would follow breaking news, a laptop on which he would work and a cellphone at the ready for exchanging texts.
Much of the discussion that day centered on whether Suffolk should shutter its public schools.
"There were lots and lots of conversations going on, with officials, with superintendents and with others on the issue," Bellone said,
And once COVID-19 testing ramped up, "we were going to find cases in every school district on Long Island."
Bellone said he hoped to see a testing facility in Suffolk up and running within the week (and with Cuomo's assistance, one was, in Stony Brook.)
How's he doing in the play room — which has only one window, on which the shades are drawn?
"It's weird, but we are in an unprecedented situation, where you have to adjust," he said.
Day Two, Monday, March 16:
Bellone's settling into a work-from-home routine.
He's up early, for interviews with radio stations. (He wore a suit, in preparation for what was supposed to be a Skype interview, which, due to technical difficulties, didn't happen.)
Then, the Emergency Operations Center call — which included some 140 people — during which there was an update on COVID-19 and its impact.
Then a conference call that included Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other state officials.
Then a call with school superintendents.
Then a call with town supervisors and village mayors.
And then, throughout the day, calls and texts with staff and also with Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and other county heads.
"Before announcing anything, we want to get everybody back on the phone so that they hear it from me and not from the media," Bellone said.
And, yes, sometime in the afternoon, there is a conference call with reporters.
"Man," Bellone said, "this is a rapidly evolving situation … So we went from New York City being reluctant to close schools, but not only closing schools but bars and restaurants — which took us by surprise, because we didn't expect that."
Among the many other issues of the day, was testing — along with how many hospital beds Suffolk had available, and how to safely handle voting during village elections. (The governor ultimately made that task easier by canceling the elections.)
Bellone also had discussions with Suffolk Police Chief of Department Stu Cameron about how the county would handle enforcement should it — as would happen under direction from Cuomo later — limit capacity in some establishments, or close businesses including bars and gyms.
"I am assuming most establishments are going to do what they should because they understand the gravity of the situation," Bellone said.
He worked well into the night, fueled by a bagel for breakfast, and beef and chicken tacos for dinner.
There was no time for the Peloton.
But he did pop out of the room to see what his children were up to.
"They're working on a leprechaun trap," he said with a laugh. "I took a peek and came back in."
Cuomo had directed Suffolk to, because schools were closing, submit a plan on how children would be fed, and how child care needs of first responders and medical personnel would be met.
Bellone, like other counties, had a midnight deadline.
"We got our preliminary plan in there," Bellone said, "by 11:45."
Day Three: Tuesday, March 17
Bellone's swapped that suit for jeans and a T-shirt. And he gets a treat: Daughter Katie, 12, has baked Irish soda bread for St. Patrick's Day.
The day also engenders conversation about enforcing the orders on bars and restaurants. (There turned out to be little need.)
County and school officials went back to refining plans for distributing meals, providing child care, and other issues, including distance learning.
"The meal part is going pretty well," Bellone said, "A lot of districts are doing grab and go."
As for distance learning, "looks like that's going to be a long-term effort," he said.
Meanwhile, Bellone also continued work as part of Cuomo's Medicaid Redesign Team — a task that would be made somewhat lighter by Washington's decision to release aid to states.
The day also was about business, as Bellone and Curran spoke about the growing needs of Long Island's businesses. .
"We want to take a regional approach on this," he said.
Meanwhile, questions are pouring in from all quarters, about everything from community spread of COVID-19 to when there will be more testing to whether batting cages and indoor soccer facilities are covered by Cuomo's order to shutter gyms. (They are).
Suffolk lawmakers pass emergency resolutions to allow the county to borrow money, and Bellone moves $500,000 from snow removal to bolster county fire, rescue and emergency services.
"People are shaken by this," Bellone said. "There has been no partisanship on the calls, no politicking in any way."
"There is a seriousness, a recognition that we get through this by working together." he said.
There also are conversations with hospital systems and with other officials about diminishing supplies, hospital capacity and, again, testing.
"I think a mobile site is going to open tomorrow," Bellone said. "They got Jones Beach set up today, and they should be rocking and rolling tomorrow."
Bellone's family, meanwhile, is on the mend from the flu, which means his wife can make a grocery store run.
Breakfast for him was an English muffin, with eggs and bacon; lunch, leftover meatloaf and noodles.
Dinner will end up being soda bread.
But with so much going on, there's no time for the Peloton.
"Family's fine, I'm fine," Bellone said.
"We're on the mend."
Day Four, Wednesday, March 18
Same jeans, different T-shirt.
More radio interviews, more telephone conferences, more texts.
One issue of the day: Suffolk's hospitals and first responders need more personal protection equipment — more masks, face protectors, gloves and such.
"This is about facing a critical shortage," Bellone said.
To that end, he had the county inventory its own supplies.
"If hospital workers don't get what they need, we're all in trouble," Bellone said, noting that the county can't meet those needs alone.
"You have to have faith that the state and federal governments are working on the larger supply issue," he said.
Meanwhile, that play room is getting tight.
"My normal routine is to be out and about," Bellone says. "I am doing my normal working routine but I am doing it from this little space and not doing it face to face with anyone."
He admits to being envious of Curran, who has held news conferences in multiple places, including a golf course.
At one point, Bellone can hear his family laughing in the living room.
They're using FaceTime to play Pictionary with another family.
He's been snacking on Doritos, and, later, will have two of what his family calls "biscuit pizzas" for dinner.
During the day, he also hears his name mispronounced before he gives an update on what's happening in the county during a national conference call.
"Steve Malone," the facilitator said, "From Suffix County."
"I told my kids about that one," Bellone said, "and that I don't think they have a lot of Bellones in the Midwest."
Afterward, there is a call with representatives from supermarket chains. Bellone expresses concern about empty store shelves, and crowding the first day special hours for older residents went into effect.
"There is plenty of food in the supply line, the issue is that people need to be reassured that they don't need to buy 50 rolls of toilet paper and 20 jars of peanut butter at one time," Bellone said.
And as for crowds, he said the county would keep an eye out — and ask the health department to seek changes if necessary because "we don't want vulnerable people in crowds."
There also was a call — unexpected, Bellone said, from a Wall Street bond rating agency.
"They were apologetic, they were sympathetic," he said.
"I made the case on why they should not take a rating action on us now, I made my case but frankly that is not my concern right now," he said. (On Friday, Fitch Ratings would lower Suffolk's bond rating, citing "the county's limited financial resilience, which leaves it ill prepared to handle even a moderate economic downturn. Current economic conditions, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, are expected to place significant pressure on the county's revenues and cash position in the near and far term.")
The economic fallout from COVID-19 will be catastrophic for municipalities.
"The issue for today is health," Bellone said.
Day Five, Thursday, March 19
Bellone was up early for local “Good Morning America,” and then back to work — more calls, and more emphasis on finding potential space to isolate patients who are sick but don’t need hospital care. No breakfast, no Peloton. And the family is still maintaining distance, even as the children head to bed.
“Virtual hug dad,” they tell Bellone. “Virtual kiss.”
Day Six, Friday, March 20
Bellone, for the first time, is holding a news conference via video.
But he's not in the playroom.
He says he can hear his family playing outside.
And so he's moved to another location in the home, where family photographs are in full view behind him.
For the second time in a week, Bellone announces that there have been more COVID-19 deaths in Suffolk — four more.