Next two weeks ‘critical,’ town supervisor says

Times Review Media Group conducted a question-and-answer session Monday with Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell.

His remarks have been edited for space and clarity.

The Suffolk Times: What happens on a daily basis with regard to COVID-19?

Scott Russell: Conference calls are part of my daily routine. Sometimes one, sometimes three or more depending on the circumstances. I try to field all community questions and concerns as quickly as I can. I am in regular contact with Chief Flatley, [senior center director] Karen McLaughlin, [emergency preparedness coordinator] Lloyd Reisenberg, [public works] Jeff Standish and other key individuals. We coordinate daily with the Suffolk County Executive, Suffolk County Department of Health and representatives from other towns.

ST: What’s the response been like on the town level?

SR: We closed most of the town government and declared a state of emergency prior to most towns because the spread started here before you saw the virus in other towns. We activated our Emergency Response Team immediately and created lines of communication with other governments and government agencies. I hosted a meeting that had over 35 representatives to coordinate our response immediately. We maintain good communication with all local fire departments, health care institutions and schools.

ST: Town Hall may be closed to the public, but what’s happening behind the scenes?

SR: We’re organizing community benefit programs like meal deliveries, securing PPE despite limited supplies, enforcing executive orders, assessing town assets and making sure information goes out in a timely fashion.

We are trying to maintain as many public services as we can with limited staff. We can only focus on essential needs, such as the solid waste station, policing, dispatch, among others.

ST: Early on, you declared a state of emergency for Southold. What does that mean?

SR: The state of emergency lets me take action that may ordinarily require a formal process and authorization from others. I can set aside procurement policies required by state law, such as competitive bidding for professional services and purchasing. This is necessary because most times you have to have service companies in place quickly to perform necessary functions, like disinfecting buildings.

I can also purchase supplies needed based on availability and not competitive bidding. This gives me the flexibility to enter into agreements quickly to address town needs. For example, I was able to commit town financial resources by striking an inter-municipal arrangement with the schools to provide child care. I cancel town services as needed or create town programs outside of normal authorization such as the meals delivery program. I can move staff around as needed or relieve staff of their ordinary responsibilities in order to protect the public’s, and their, safety. I evaluate what is an essential function that needs to continue in order to address the emergency, such as DPW, or close down offices that are deemed nonessential.

ST: What about FEMA aid? Will Southold Town be eligible for help from that agency?

SR: FEMA will reimburse for costs incurred by the town that are over and above usual costs of operation. Not everything is reimbursed but many one-off costs are. For instance, I had to take two part-time people and make them temporarily full-time. That’s called “forced labor” and the additional costs of paying them are reimbursed. It does not mean they were forced to do it. It’s just a term FEMA uses.

ST: Gov. Cuomo said he was unaware of a request for a travel ban on the East End. What led to that request in the first place?

SR: The ban would have applied to unnecessary travel in and out of Southold, prohibited people with no ties or necessity to be here such as renters, day-trippers/shoppers, etc. In our message, we asked people who weren’t already in Southold to delay coming if possible. We asked for it for one reason: The population was growing at an alarming rate while the virus was spreading rapidly and we needed time to get a handle on both.

ST: Is the public heeding the call to practice social distancing? Can the town enforce these guidelines?

SR: The town hasn’t closed the beaches but has closed ball fields, courts, etc. We mostly get compliance but some try to use them anyway. We usually have someone request they leave.

We regularly check on the beaches. Social distancing is being followed much more regularly than it had over the first few weeks townwide but, clearly, there are some who don’t, whether at the beaches or elsewhere. We will disperse larger groups of 10 or more when we see them.

The next two weeks will be critical for this community. It is anticipated that we will be reaching our peak and the rate of infection will grow rapidly. It is more important now than ever that people be especially diligent at protecting themselves by social distancing and wearing masks.

ST: Amid this terrible crisis, we’ve seen a lot of support come from all over. Your thoughts on that?

SR: The community, individuals, businesses, community organizations and others have jumped right in from the beginning to help any way they can. If there is a need out there, there is always someone or a group willing to step up and provide it, whatever it might be.