'This is a plea:' Upstate NY counties ask visitors, weekenders to stay away as coronavirus spreads

Georgie Silvarole and Gwen Chamberlain
Keuka and Seneca Lakes, in the central Finger Lakes Region, are home to many vacation rental properties and second homes. Local officials are hoping area services do not become overwhelmed by an influx of visitors fleeing more populated areas during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chronicle-Express and USA Today Network

YATES COUNTY — Are the Finger Lakes the next destination for people fleeing higher population areas to escape the coronavirus?

Yates County officials have expressed their concerns about local resources being stretched beyond capacity if too many people come to their second homes or vacation rentals in the area.

As part of the effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Chairman of the Yates County Legislature, Douglas Paddock, is asking tourists and second home owners to follow state and federal mandates that people stay home until we get past this pandemic.

Paddock explains, "Yates County welcomes its seasonal residents and visitors. In normal times, the county’s emergency services and medical facilities are capable of providing excellent care. However, these are not normal times. Because Yates County is a rural area and has a normal population of approximately 25,000 people, our emergency and medical services community is limited in the ability to serve a large number of patients requiring higher levels of care as experienced with of COVID-19 and other illnesses. Our hospital is small and incapable of handling a large influx of patients. Our stores are incapable likely to have difficulty providing supplies to a large population."

There is no travel ban currently in New York State nor is there a New York State requirement for individuals to be quarantined for 14 days who are coming back to New York State from another state or anyone coming into Yates County from another county in New York State. But Yates County Public Health Director Deb Minor is alerting any visitor to follow the same precautions set forth for all community members:

• Stay home as much as possible.

• If you must go out into our community, practice social distancing by maintaining six feet from one another.

• If you are ill, isolate yourself and call your healthcare provider.

• Wash your hands often.

Yates County Administrator Nonie Flynn said, "Thank you for your understanding in these unusual times.”

Brian Zerges, owner of Finger Lakes Premier Properties says the company's bookings are down, and his workers are taking cancellations for bookings with arrival dates through May 1. He adds, "Just like local hotels, the vacation rentals don’t seem to be seeing a large influx of visitors." He

Finger Lakes Premiere Properties has laid off about half of its staff, but Zerges says he is hopeful they can come back to work soon.

In the small Greene County town of New Baltimore, about 25% of homes are owned by "weekenders" — people who, generally speaking, live in places like New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut, and own second homes in upstate New York.

Those homeowners are flocking to places like Greene County — and Greene County is begging them not to.

Greene County Legislator Pat Linger, who lives in New Baltimore, is one of several upstate officials sounding the alarm about the potentially dangerous consequences to visitors leaving their primary homes as the coronavirus crisis grows in more populated areas.

The reason is two-fold, Linger said: On one hand, any travel will inevitably aid the spread of the virus. And on the other, places like grocery stores and healthcare facilities in Greene County aren't able to handle the drastic spike in residents.

Already, Linger said at least 80% of those second homes across the county are no longer vacant, and homeowners are bringing more than just their immediate families with them.

"I have some (second homes) in New Baltimore and they have lights on and cars in the driveway where, normally, those people wouldn’t be here," Linger said. "I have one across the street from me"

He added, "I’ve got people walking on my road specifically that I know are not residents in the town, and they’re also not the family or the immediate family of the people who own the house that’s there."

Greene County is not alone in its plea — Washington County, Rensselear County and Sullivan County have posted messages on social media, urging people to stay at their primary residences and avoid traveling to their second homes or booking short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb or VRBO.

Why local officials are urging people to stay home

In a press release on Monday, Schoharie County's Office of Emergency Services issued a list of things they hoped residents and potential visitors would abide by.

"Don't travel here from another county or area which is experiencing a large community transmission of COVID-19," one bullet point read.

"Don't have an expectation that resources will be available to you here that are not available to you in your hometown," another said. "The area has very limited healthcare resources and testing capacity. There are also limited food and non-food essentials."

For those that choose to come anyway, or maybe already have settled in their second homes or in an Airbnb, county officials don't want them to feel demonized.

No order currently prohibits someone from traveling to their second home, and they have every right to do so.

They do hope, however, that those people will take their responsibility to self-quarantine and socially distance themselves very seriously.

"The virus travels. Where people go, that’s where the virus goes," said Dr. Joshua Lipsman, a physician and member of the Village of Athens' board of trustees in Greene County.

"We don’t have extensive health resources here. In this area, we have one community hospital. The next-biggest tertiary referral center is in Albany, which is 40 miles away."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that the number of deaths in New York jumped to 385 statewide.

Counties urge the state to intervene

Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin wrote a letter Wednesday to Cuomo asking him to put a temporary ban on travel from New York City to parts of upstate.

He said five people who relocated from the city to Troy have tested positive for coronavirus.

"Public health experts agree that an effective way to combat the spread of COVID-19 is to stay home," McLaughlin wrote, "and I believe we must now enact a temporary pause, as necessary, on non-essential travel from New York City to other parts of the state in order to slow the spread of COVID-19."

Asked Thursday about the actions by local leaders, Cuomo said he has no plans to limit travel within the state. The state already ordered most businesses to close and shuttered schools and houses of worship.

But Lipsman said the more people who come to their communities, the more chance there is of local residents getting sick.

"If people come, it increases the risk that more people get sick," he said. "The more people that get sick, the more likely it is that people get really sick and are going to need medical care and then it isn’t going to be here for them."

From 2000 through 2009, Lipsman worked as Westchester County's health commissioner.

He guided his community through responses to 9/11, SARS, bioterrorism, anthrax and avian influenza, and said he's been helping his community to prepare for this outcome by sharing information on how to reduce the spread at board meetings and on the village's website for the last few months.

“There have been five cases of COVID-19 in our county from residents who recently relocated from New York City. Non-essential travel between downstate to upstate, including Rensselaer County, needs to be put on pause immediately,” McLaughlin added.

But now that COVID-19 is undoubtedly here in New York, he hopes the message is clear: If you can stay home, stay home.

And if you've already traveled to another county, get settled and stay put.

"I used to be a weekender too, myself. I get what’s going on here," Lipsman said, patting his hand on his chest.

"This is a plea from public health experts for people to stay put so as not to spread the virus."

Georgie Silvarole is a backpack reporter for the USA TODAY Network's New York State Team. You can reach her by email at gsilvarole@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @gsilvarole.

Gwen Chamberlain is Editor of The Chronicle-Express in Penn Yan, N.Y. You can reach her by email at gwenchamberlain@chronicle-express.com or follow her on Twitter @GCPYnews