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Onondaga County absentee ballot count on hold 2 weeks, 8 COVID cases among staff

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
Democratic Elections Commissioner Dustin Czarny at the Onondaga County Board of Elections.

The counting of absentee ballots in Onondaga County might not resume until the end of the month, after eight positive cases of COVID-19 were reported among staffers at the county Board of Elections. But the elections commissioners have a plan, as a state deadline looms.

The Board of Elections office is closed this week. The counting stopped Friday after one positive case. Staff members were then tested, and more positive cases were found. The two elections commissioners both tested negative.

The Board of Elections sent a list to the county health department of more than 100 people who were in the counting rooms from the two parties and various campaigns. Now, they’re being tested. Those who test positive go in isolation, while those who test negative are quarantined. A lot of those ballot watchers could end up in quarantine.

As essential workers, Democratic Elections Commissioner Dustin Czarny said they hope to be cleared to go back to work on Monday. The commissioners have been in contact with the state Board of Elections, and want to issue a partial certification of the presidential election by the Nov. 28 deadline. Czarny said they’re also asking a judge to approve resuming the absentee ballot count on Nov. 30.

“Which will allow us to finish this canvass after the quarantine time period and after our staff that is positive gets by their isolation time period as well, and are able to recover,” Czarny said. “Logistically, doing it without this many staffers in a small office like that, it would be impossible.”

Republican Elections Commissioner Michele Sardo said it’s difficult to determine how long it will take to finish the count, once it resumes. The Board of Elections was counting up to 10,000 absentee ballots a day, which is a lot. With less people, it could slow the process.

There are about 30,000 absentee ballots that still need to be counted and several races are too close to call. In the 50th state Senate race, Republican Angi Renna has been losing ground to Democrat John Mannion. She leads by about 2,500 votes. Democratic Assemblyman Al Stirpe leads over Republican Mark Venesky by about 1,200 votes.

Onondaga County reports 153 cases, 1 death

Onondaga County officials Monday announced another 153 cases of COVID-19. County Executive Ryan McMahon a majority of those cases are from community spread. 

The county is streamlining the contact tracing regimen that’s used to try and corral the virus, as cases continue to rise.

Numbers in the last few weeks have hovered between 150 and more than 200 new cases every day. McMahon said that’s a lot of work for county staff doing case investigations.

"What we’re tweaking here, is we can’t have 200 cases a day and track down the commercial activity for a week, and put them out there unless there is direct exposure or direct risk for people," McMahon said.

That means no more notifications of stores or businesses that a COVID-positive individual could have visited. McMahon said at this point with the community spread, everyone should be watching for symptoms of the coronavirus. And he emphasizes everyone who may be a direct contact will be notified.   He’s also hoping a new app put out by New York state can help contact tracers.

"It will allow people to enter in their contacts and possible exposures into the app, and by doing this it helps with contact tracing efforts, and helps us have better turn times," he said.

The county’s infection rate now stands at almost four percent. Starting Tuesday, anyone without symptoms can be tested at the OnCenter. Pre-registration is required. Any experiencing symptoms, including school-age kids, can get a test at the F Shed at the CNY Regional Market. Appointments are required.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.