Franklin County declared a state of emergency Saturday evening in response to the coronavirus outbreak that produced the first fatality in New York state over the weekend.
Don Dabiew, the chairman of the county Legislature, declared a state of emergency effective 7 p.m. Friday even though there are no confirmed cases of the virus in the county.
“Although there are no confirmed cases within Franklin County to date, this situation is rapidly evolving, and the threat of this virus is imminent to the citizens and visitors of Franklin County, Dabiew wrote in the declaration. “It is necessary that Franklin County be proactive and be fully prepared to deal with its effects.”
The order will make it easier to procure goods and services needed to fight the disease, which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and will enable the county “to render all required and available assistance to municipalities and school districts that is vital to the security, well-being, and health and safety of the citizens of Franklin County,” Dabiew wrote.
The state of emergency will remain in effect until April 20.
The declaration came just a few hours after county Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill announced the suspension of visits to the county jail. Mulverhill’s announcement was released shortly after the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision issued a similar statement.
Also on Saturday, the Jefferson-Lewis BOCES announced that all schools in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties will be closed until at least mid-April. Schools in the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES service area were still scheduled to operate normally as of Saturday evening.
“In an effort to protect our staff, inmate population and the general public and In light of the rapidly changing events surrounding the COVID-19 Virus the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is suspending inmate visits until further notice,” Mulverhill announced in an email received shortly after 6:30 p.m. “Professionals seeking to conduct business within the confines of the jail will be required to contact the facility and arrange an appointment for a non-contact visit.”
Mulverhill’s announcement came about five hours after DOCCS announced it was suspending visits to inmates in state prisons, including the three in Malone. The state action followed complaints by state lawmakers and the union representing corrections officers that continued visitation risked spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The state suspension, which was effective at 5 p.m. Saturday, will remain in place until April 11, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced Saturday afternoon.
“The Department’s greatest concern is the safety and well-being of our employees and individuals within our care, custody, and supervision, particularly during this developing public health emergency,” DOCCS said in a statement. “To that end, the Department must swiftly impose restrictions and precautions to prevent additional spread of infectious viral transmission of COVID-19 in both correctional facilities and the community writ large.
“As this public health emergency rapidly develops, the Department will closely monitor the situation and extend these restrictions as necessary,” the statement continued.
“While this suspension of visitation will be temporary, the Department recognizes the immediate impact on incarcerated individuals throughout the correctional system. However, the current situation demands this significant action to safeguard the health and safety of all incarcerated individuals, employees, as well as their families and communities,” the statement said
While in-person visitation will be impossible to replace, DOCCS will provide inmates with alternate ways to contact their families and friends during the suspension. Those alternatives will include five free stamps per week to enable inmates to send letters, two free secure messages per week via electronic tablet, and one free phone call per week.
The suspended visitation also applies to family reunion programs, but legal visits will continue –– although they will have to be conducted without any physical contact between the inmate and their legal representatives.
The state’s decision was applauded by Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, a former corrections officer.
“Over the last several days, I have been in constant contact with Department of Corrections and Community Supervision officials regarding my concerns with the continuance of visitation practices at our correctional facilities,” Jones, D-Chateaugay, said in an email statement. “I am pleased to learn that the Commissioner has decided to suspend visitation during this very uncertain time. Above all else, the safety of our corrections officers and civilian staff comes first, and this decision will undoubtedly go a long way to keep them, as well as the inmates and their families, safe.”
The decision comes just a day after Jones and representatives of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association called on DOCCS to immediately suspend inmate visitation to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The number of confirmed cases of the virus in the state climbed to more than 500 as of Saturday afternoon, although none have been reported in any of the seven counties the state identifies as the North Country. The bulk of the cases remain clustered in New York City and its suburbs, although cases have also been reported in the Albany and Rochester areas and in the Southern Tier.
Despite the absence of confirmed cases in the region, cancellations and closures continue to be reported. Among the latest postponements because of the virus are the Friday night donkey basketball game at Brushton-Moira Central School and the Salmon River Central School’s planned performance of “High School Musical,” which had been set for Saturday. The performance was postponed earlier that day, with no new date set.
The Malone Central School District also postponed its planned staging of “Into the Woods,” which had been set to take place this coming weekend.
Schools around the region are canceling or postponing all events that are expected to attract large numbers of people.
Also, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Traffic Court has suspended all initial appearances and hearing until at least April 20. Drivers who have been issued traffic citations can enter pleas or pay fines by mail or in person at the court office.