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Governor has new COVID-19 travel rules in place, but can they be enforced?

There are potential fines of up to $10,000

There are potential fines of up to $10,000 for violations of quarantine or isolation orders in New York, and up to $2,000 for refusing to fill out the required traveler form, according to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's executive order. Credit: AP / Kathy Willens

New York’s new COVID-19 rules requiring testing and quarantining for many out-of-state visitors face the same challenge as the previous restrictions for travelers: how to ensure that the countless people streaming by land or by air every day into the state are obeying the rules.

Under an executive order that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed Saturday, travelers arriving from out of state — including New Yorkers returning home — can avoid a 14-day quarantine in effect since June by getting a negative coronavirus test result within three days before their departure for New York, and then another negative result on the fourth day after they arrive. They would still have to quarantine for their first three days in New York.

Yet, even the governor's office acknowledges that it's impossible to make sure everyone — especially drivers — is complying with the rules. And there's confusion over who should be monitoring the travelers who fill out the forms, to validate their test results and make sure they're quarantined, if required.

In addition, experts say that, because of the several days it typically takes for the virus to incubate, some people may test negative even though they are infectious.

Nicholas DePalo, 78, of East Patchogue, would be affected by the new order. He plans to return home with his wife from their vacation home in South Carolina on Nov. 15.

DePalo said he spent at least four hours online and on about a dozen phone calls before he found a testing site a 45-minute drive away that would provide test results quickly enough to meet the state deadline. Other testing sites typically said results aren’t delivered for three to five days.

"I understand why the tests should be done before you get on the flight," DePalo said, but, "there are not enough rapid tests out in the community."

Rules that expired at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday had required travelers arriving from states with a high rate of COVID-19 cases to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in New York and to submit forms with their contact information, so health workers could follow up with them. The forms are still required.

The new rules apply to travelers from any state, except for the five that border New York. Those who spent less than 24 hours out of state would be exempt from the three-day quarantine, although they’d have to get a negative test on the fourth day.

The governor’s office says local health departments are supposed to verify test results "if necessary" — it’s unclear when a test result is not considered necessary — and monitor travelers during their quarantines, by phone, text or sometimes in-person visits.

But Nassau health department spokeswoman Mary Ellen Laurain said the state, not the county, follows up with travelers, just like with the system that expired Wednesday. She referred questions, including on whether any Nassau residents have been cited under the traveler quarantine rules, to the state.

Yet Laurain said in early July that Nassau was monitoring travelers daily under the old rules, using names the state health department provided.

The Suffolk health department also said that the state monitors travelers and that, under the new rules, the state typically will confirm the results of a test, with Suffolk assisting only if needed.

A health department statement said no one from Suffolk has been fined for violating a traveler quarantine.

As before, there are potential state fines of up to $10,000 for violations of quarantine or isolation orders, and up to $2,000 for refusing to fill out the required traveler form. Enforcement is by local law enforcement, the state health department said in a statement.

The New York City sheriff’s office regularly has checkpoints at the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and the Goethals Bridge, stopping cars randomly, and had made 7,938 vehicle stops as of Sunday, collecting 598 forms from people who said they traveled to a quarantine state, said Laura Feyer, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Four people have been issued summonses by the city for violating the quarantine — maximum city fines are $1,000 — and two were cited for refusing to fill out the traveler form, she said in an email.

The state health department did not respond to questions on how many people statewide have been cited.

Assemb. Michael Montesano (R-Glen Head) supports the new rules, because it gives travelers more options, and he backs the quarantine. But, he said, "especially on the road, it’s impractical" because so many people drive to New York from out of state every day.

The New York City sheriff’s office checkpoints screen only a tiny percentage of out-of-state travelers, he said. And, Montesano added, "How do you know where these cars are coming from? They can tell you anything they want."

Even so, he said, "something is better than nothing" because it likely deters some potentially contagious out-of-state visitors from traveling to New York, and enforcement at airports is more robust than he had predicted when the old rules went into effect in June.

"It has some effect, but I think there’s only so much you can do with this," he said.

The state health department said that, as of Monday, 1.3 million traveler forms have been collected in person or online — drivers can complete them online — but did not respond to a question as to how many of the travelers had arrived by car, bus or train, and how many by air.

"Compliance with the travel advisory has been very good," the health department said in a statement.

At Long Island MacArthur Airport, all passengers are checked, because foot traffic from all gates funnel through a single exit, said Shelley LaRose-Arken, the airport’s commissioner. State Department of Health employees had verified that passengers filled out forms, until Army National Guard soldiers took over that responsibility Oct. 19, she said. Tens of thousands of passengers have arrived from out of state since screening began in early July, she said.

Airlines pass out the forms or provide a QR code that allows passengers to fill out forms online, presenting those verifying the forms with a green check mark upon exiting, she said.

LaRose-Arken said a state health department employee was at a LaGuardia gate when she arrived there in August, but others who arrived at gates at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International Airport told her that not all gates had someone checking forms.

A spokesman for Cuomo said state employees at some airports are assigned randomly to arrival gates. The state health department said "almost all" flights are screened.

Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious disease specialist at New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, said the tests may not catch everyone who has the virus and is infectious.

It usually takes at least a few days for the coronavirus to show up on tests, so someone who tests negative two or three days before a flight might actually have contracted the virus, and someone who tests negative four days after the flight may have contracted the virus in the previous few days, he said.

Even so, Hirschwerk said, it’s a "reasonable strategy" to require tests in lieu of a full 14-day quarantine.

"It’s one small measure that can help to curb the rise of rates in New York," he said. "There are many factors that are more important, including the use of masks, social distancing and avoiding crowds, especially indoors."

With Matthew Chayes