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For Steve Bellone, coronavirus pandemic went from '0 to 100 overnight'

Newsday Suffolk County government & politics reporter Rachelle Blidner examined how Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone handled the first year of the coronavirus pandemic in the county, from the first reported cases in March, 2020 to the deployment of pop-up vaccination sites in recent weeks. Credit: Newsday / Rachelle Blidner, Chris Ware; File footage

On March 14, 2020 — six days after Suffolk County had recorded its first case of COVID-19 — County Executive Steve Bellone learned that one of his top aides, Peter Scully, had become the first member of the county's 10,000-person workforce to test positive for the coronavirus.

An emergency command center in Hauppauge where Bellone, Scully and other administration officials had been working was shut down within hours.

'It was bizarre but really fit the moment because everything about this moment was bizarre and new and different.'

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on having to isolate and work from home after his COVID-19 exposure

On the cusp of what would become the worst public health crisis Suffolk had ever faced, Bellone moved home to West Babylon, setting up an office in his children's playroom amid their baseball bats, lacrosse sticks and board games, and Bellone's Peloton bike.

"It was bizarre but really fit the moment because everything about this moment was bizarre and new and different," Bellone recalled.

Looking back months later, Bellone said the county was not prepared for "the depth and seriousness" of the virus because it had received little warning from the federal government. He compared it to battling a hurricane without adequate warning from the National Weather Service.

The pandemic in Suffolk arose "in an instant, essentially," Bellone said, snapping his fingers.

"It went from 0 to 100 overnight."

In a series of interviews conducted periodically as the pandemic unfolded over the past year, Bellone, a Democrat, recalled how he grappled with decisions about curbing the spread of illness and death in communities across the county of 1.5 million people, and what to do about schools and the tanking local economy.

Another issue also was at the front of his mind: How to avoid bringing the virus home to his wife, Tracey, and their three young children.

Since the county's first three COVID-19 deaths were reported on March 16, 2020, Suffolk has reported some 3,200 deaths from the illness, and 172,000 confirmed coronavirus cases.

After peaking in early April, tallies of positive tests, deaths and hospitalizations declined steadily over the summer as virus testing became more widely available and many residents followed guidelines for social distancing.

But within a few days of Halloween, cases began to rise and continued to increase as people gathered for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and other holidays despite warnings against doing so.

Suffolk County logged more than 94,000 cases between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31, nearly double the recorded total for the first eight months of the pandemic.

But amid the holiday surge, there were moments of hope as the federal government approved two vaccines, allowing New York State to begin distributing them.

The rollout has had its challenges.

Supply has been limited, and the state required the county to prioritize essential employees and municipal workers over other groups. Residents inundated county legislative offices and 311 call lines with requests for help in finding appointments.

Winter weather delayed a week's worth of vaccines in February and forced the county to postpone the opening of a third vaccination site.

But by the anniversary of the county's first COVID-19 cases, nearly 270,000 people in Suffolk had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to county data.

Bellone says 850,000 residents must be vaccinated to reach herd immunity.

"At this moment, a year after this pandemic really became a crisis, I'm feeling very optimistic about where we're headed," Bellone said in a recent interview.

'No playbook for this'

Bellone faced a far different situation last spring.

County officials worked to provide residents with face coverings and food aid.

County employees were trained to trace contacts of infected individuals, or to work as 311 call operators to provide information about testing sites and food banks.

When local hospitals ran short of protective equipment and ventilators last March and April, the Bellone administration formed a procurement team that included police detectives to track down equipment suppliers and verify they were not running scams.

"All of this was on the fly; there’s no playbook for this," Bellone recalled.

Bellone has fans and critics of his performance during the early months of the crisis last year.

Lisa Benz Scott, director of Stony Brook Medicine’s public health program, commended Bellone for stressing to the public the importance both of using protective face coverings and limiting the size of gatherings.

"We really value County Executive Bellone's leadership working with the county health department, business leaders, school districts and promoting consistent and correct use of these preventive measures," Benz Scott said.

'He’s in his element when he’s dealing with a crisis in the moment.'

Suffolk legislative presiding officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) of Bellone's pandemic response

"In some ways he’s in his element when he’s dealing with a crisis in the moment," legislative presiding officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue) said of Bellone.

But Suffolk County Republican Chairman Jesse Garcia said Bellone could have acted earlier to bolster the local economy and should have pressed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to reduce the amount of time businesses had to stay shut.

'Steve Bellone did not stand up to the governor in speaking up for our small businesses.'

Suffolk County Republican Chairman Jesse Garcia 

"Steve Bellone did not stand up to the governor in speaking up for our small businesses," Garcia said.

Richard Schaffer, Babylon Town supervisor and chairman of the Suffolk Democratic Party, said Bellone "put on a great show" in daily public briefings about infection rates and the availability of virus testing.

But Bellone waited too long to call for an extension of the deadline for county homeowners to make property tax payments, said Schaffer, head of the Suffolk County Supervisors' Association.

Schaffer also said Bellone rebuffed some requests by town supervisors to fund more free virus testing sites.

"It felt like everything had to be scripted," Schaffer, who has feuded with Bellone over numerous issues in the past several years. "You can't run a pandemic response on a script."

Bellone has declined repeatedly to say what, if anything, he would have done differently when the pandemic hit last year.

Bellone said as virus cases and deaths spiked in the pandemic's early months, he tried to gather as much information as possible to, "make the best decisions possible. That's the best you can do in a crisis."

Administration officials stressed that Suffolk provided free testing to thousands of residents at hot spot testing sites in areas with elevated infection rates.

They also noted that Bellone called for Cuomo to extend the deadline for property tax payments last year after an administration working group devised a plan for weathering a delay in tax revenues.

"The fact that the County’s two party bosses, Schaffer and Garcia, have teamed up to criticize our response is probably the best indication that our nonpartisan approach to battling COVID-19 was right," Deputy Suffolk County Executive Jason Elan said in a statement.

Trying to 'lead by example'

For 14 straight days last March, Bellone used his makeshift office at home to conduct daily news media briefings via Zoom and Facebook Live, along with conference calls with government and school officials to discuss safety guidelines and new coronavirus cases and fatalities.

"People were scared and nervous and anxious because you did not know when this was going to end," Bellone recalled. "Would it end in the hospital system being overwhelmed? Where would we end up with respect to [the] number of people infected and dying? Would we run out of ventilators?"

Bellone said he considered it important to act a role model for residents, quarantining himself after possible exposure, holding his news conferences and meetings virtually and wearing face coverings.

"I just felt very strongly at that moment that what we were starting here, because it was so unprecedented, we really needed to lead by example and model best behavior," Bellone said.

The 'worst part'

For Bellone, the "worst part" in the early months was the point in his daily briefing when he reported the number of new COVID-19 fatalities in the county.

From March 16 to June 11 last year, Bellone reported at least one fatality each day, with a peak of 64 on April 7.

Bellone said the extent of the deaths hit him when the county morgue in Hauppauge reached its capacity of 70 in early April, and officials had to locate more space to store bodies.

One county official suggested using an ice rink, but Bellone said he nixed the idea because he did not want children in the future to skate where bodies had been stored. Suffolk ended up using a refrigerated former meat processing plant at a county-owned farm as a backup morgue until June.

"I never expected at the outset the numbers we would ultimately see," Bellone said of the deaths.

'The emotional anguish and turmoil that people were going to experience ... I didn’t understand that at the beginning.'

Steve Bellone

"The emotional anguish and turmoil that people were going to experience through this crisis, I didn’t understand that at the beginning, what would happen there," he said.

"It’s been the worst part of the experience seeing people go through this and having loved ones die without being able to see them in the hospital and be there with them," Bellone said.

Dealing with multiple crises

At the same time, the local economy was cratering.

At 8 p.m. on March 22, 2020, a Sunday, Cuomo's New York State on PAUSE order took effect. It forced closure of nonessential businesses statewide, and prohibited nonessential "gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason."

In the first week of the shutdown, some 28,000 Suffolk County residents filed for unemployment, compared with the 13,000 who filed in all of New York State during the same week in 2019, according to state Labor Department data.

County officials created a small business recovery unit to field questions about the pandemic from business owners. Another new program, Suffolk Forward, provided technology help to businesses. Both still are operating.

Demand for Meals on Wheels climbed, and domestic violence shelters filled, Bellone recalled.

'Even though the main focus was the public health crisis, we were aware this was going to be an economic crisis and human services crisis.'

Steve Bellone

"Even though the main focus was the public health crisis, we were aware this was going to be an economic crisis and human services crisis," Bellone said.

The most significant fiscal impact for Suffolk County was expected to be the hit to sales tax revenues, which typically fund half the county's annual budget of more than $3 billion.

County budget officials in the spring and summer projected sales tax revenues would fall by $100 million to $400 million over the year.

Bellone said he realized, "There’s no revenue coming in. We’re at a point now where you don’t know if you can meet basic obligations. Are you going to be able to make payroll? Are you going to be able to pay back bonds?"

One possible way out of the immediate fiscal crisis was an emergency U.S. Federal Reserve program created to purchase up to $500 billion in short-term notes from states and large counties and cities.

To be eligible to take advantage of the Fed's Municipal Liquidity Facility, counties had to have a population of at least 2 million.

Bellone joined Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) in lobbying for counties such as Suffolk, with 1.47 million resident, to be included.

Fiscal relief arrives

In late April 2020, Bellone was home watching the NFL Draft with his eight-year-old son when then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin called to tell Bellone Suffolk had become eligible to use the Fed borrowing program.

The county ended up not using the program because its interest rates were above the market average, Suffolk Comptroller John Kennedy said.

Ultimately, sales tax revenues for calendar 2020 were about $100 million more than estimated earlier in the year, although $39 million less than the county collected in 2019, according to the Suffolk County Legislature's Budget Review Office.

The $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package that President Joe Biden signed March 11 brought more fiscal relief.

Bellone had put $75 million in staffing and service reductions in his $3.19 billion budget for 2021. The cuts, including elimination of two police academy classes and 500 full-time county jobs, were scheduled to take effect in July.

But the $286 million slated to go to Suffolk will make the county budget cuts unnecessary, Bellone said.

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), while praising Bellone’s overall response to the COVID-19 crisis, said over the summer that the county could have avoided dire fiscal problems if its finances hadn't been so weak before the pandemic.

Cilmi, who served as legislative minority leader last year, cited state comptroller reports in 2018 and 2019 describing Suffolk as in the worst fiscal stress of any county in New York based on operating deficits, short-term borrowing and fund balances.

'Hindsight is always 20/20, but I really don’t think it had to be as devastating as it was.'

Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) on Suffolk County's fiscal problems

"Economically this whole thing has been devastating," Cilmi said of the pandemic. "Hindsight is always 20/20, but I really don’t think it had to be as devastating as it was."

Bellone has said the county’s finances were improving before the pandemic, and that sales tax revenues jumped in the first two months of 2020.

He noted that when he took office in 2012, Suffolk faced a projected $500 million deficit over three years. Also, his 2020 budget contained no one-shot revenues or amortizations of pension costs, Bellone said.

And the arrival of the new federal aid will help put Suffolk County on track for recovery, Bellone said.

"I think we're going to be dealing with the impacts of COVID over the next several years, at least," Bellone said.

"But knowing that you have the resources to deal with these issues, and to deal with the challenges that we will face, is a great reason for optimism," he said.