ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo's new pandemic mandate limiting household gatherings — including Thanksgiving dinners — relies on local governments to enforce the cap of no more than 10 people in a residence.
But questions about how such a restriction could be enforced are already surfacing.
Members of New York's county sheriff departments "are not going to be peeping in people's windows to see how many people are in there," Peter Kehoe, executive director of the New York State Sheriffs Association, told CNHI.
After a conference call with several sheriffs Thursday, Nov. 12, Kehoe said the sheriffs "are confused about the whole thing" because Cuomo's edict offered no specifics as to how it should be enforced, other than a press release mentioning that it was anticipated that job would fall to local governments.
Beyond the challenges of having to count people who entered a private residence, Kehoe said a police agency inclined to look into how many guests are in a house would face potential limitations on their ability to document alleged violations.
"There are certainly going to be constitutional questions about anything that would regulate how many people you can have in your home," he said.
He said one county sheriff contacted a Cuomo representative to suggest that the State Police, an agency controlled by the governor, carry out the assignment, but was told that since it involved civil enforcement it would have to be done by local police.
In announcing the edict, Cuomo said he decided to lower the previous cap for social gathering from 50 to 10 persons because data from contact tracing has found they have the propensity to spread the coronavirus.
"Bars, restaurants, gyms, house parties, that’s where it’s coming from, primarily," the governor said on a conference call Wednesday.
His latest mandate, responding to a surge in the number of infections in many regions of the state, also requires bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and gyms to close their doors by 10 p.m. each night, beginning Friday (Nov. 13).
"If these measures are not sufficient to slow the spread, we will turn the valve more, and part of that would be reducing the number of people in indoor dining," the governor said. New York restaurants are now facing a limit of 50% of their occupancy capacity, though in New York City and some hot spots the limit is 25%.
"If that doesn't work, if numbers keep going crazy, there are some scientists who believe we should close down," Cuomo added. "I hope that doesn't happen."
Cuomo's latest measures represent a shift from a more targeted approach focusing on "micro clusters" of infections in specific communities. Those outbreaks have been met by beefing up the availability of testing and imposing some restrictions aimed at containing the spread.
Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond said the new "one size fits all approach" is flawed, suggesting the restrictions were done hastily.
"I think he is having another knee-jerk reaction to an issue he is dealing with, and he needs to slow down and be more deliberate in his decision-making," DuMond said.
As for the new restaurant and bar restrictions, New York's move came after Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts also imposed earlier closing hours.
Lilly Jan, a food and beverage lecturer on the Hotel School faculty at Cornell University, said the new restrictions are likely to reduce the number of patrons many restaurants can sit for meals, and thus cut into their ability to make a profit.
She also noted restaurants often rely on the revenue derived from the sale of alcoholic beverages. "This is an industry that is completely dependent on volume," she said. "Alcohol sales can account for good chunk of your revenue. If you can continue to offer drinks for pickup and delivery, that's great. But if you can't do that after 10 p.m., that is going to hurt some bottom lines, for sure."
Scott Wexler, director of the Empire State Tavern and Restaurant Association, said the restrictions will have varying impacts, and hurt those that cater to having more customers entering establishments later in the evenings. They will also hurt diners that open late at night and in the predawn hours, he said.
"The (infection) data is hard to argue with," Wexler said. "The policy is hard to accept."
The new restrictions underscores the importance of proposed federal Restaurants Act, which is tucked inside stalled federal stimulus legislation, Wexler said. He suggested the ability of many New York restaurants to survive could hinge on whether the Restaurants Act wins congressional support.
The measure includes a grant program designed to make $120 billion in grants to businesses impacted by the pandemic. One restaurant industry advocacy group has estimated such a grant program would drive $271 billion back into the economy.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com.