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Coronavirus fears give some lobbyists at Capitol a difficult choice

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News (file photo)

Despite growing coronavirus concerns, the New York State Capitol is so far staying open to the public, and the legislature is continuing to meet -- although Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he's considering banning visitors to the Capitol at some point in the near future.

With three weeks until the state budget deadline, it’s prime lobbying season in Albany. But groups hoping to have their voices heard have the tough choice of whether to show up -- or stay home. 

Members of VOCAL-NY, the criminal justice rights group, have been at the Capitol nearly every week this year, advocating for better treatment of prisoners and pushing against a backlash over the state’s bail reform laws, which ended many forms of cash bail on Jan. 1. But their numbers are dwindling as concerns grow over coronavirus. 

Roger Clark of Brooklyn is still coming to the Capitol, but he said he’s taking some precautions -- like elbow bumps instead of handshakes.

“I’m asthmatic, so if I get it, I’m going to have to go the hospital,” Clark said.  

One of the group’s organizers, Nick Encalada-Malinowski, said there are powerful forces urging the legislature to roll back the bail reform laws, including sheriffs, police departments, and district attorneys. He said he worries that if his group doesn’t come to the Capitol to be seen and heard by lawmakers, their voice will get lost in a state government already distracted by coronavirus. 

“If we are not here, we know that they will do things that are bad,” said Encalada-Malinowski. “We feel like we really have to be here to whatever extent possible.” 

Encalada-Malinowski said the organizers are keeping members informed of best practices, like maintaining social distance and washing their hands frequently. 

Other organizations made the decision to stay home, including the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, and the state’s largest hospital lobby group, the Health Care Association of New York. They cited concerns about large group gatherings adding to the potential spread of the virus.

The Mental Health Association of New York was planning on bringing 450 high school students from around the state to the Capitol as part of its largest-ever advocacy day. But they decided to cancel. Glenn Liebman, the group’s CEO, said he’s disappointed, but feels it was the right decision.

“From a public health consequence, we just felt that to bring 700-something people to Albany in one day, in one enclosed area, was a little too difficult,” Liebman said.

The group is advocating for a 3% funding increase for mental health care providers; they say the coronavirus is likely to intensify the workload for providers. They also are seeking to double Cuomo’s $500 million allocation for mental health awareness training in schools.

Liebman said for now, they’ll have to get their views across by using the internet to reach lawmakers.

“Are we up against it? We absolutely are,” Liebman said, “But every year, we seem to have to fight the odds.”

And he said in that respect, this year is no different.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.