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Governor slams Suffolk Sheriff after announcement that deputies will not participate in enforcement of Thanksgiving gatherings

Gov. Andrew Cuomo fired back at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office after a recent announcement that it would “not be participating in enforcement of Thanksgiving gatherings,” in response to the current guidelines that limit household gatherings to 10 people.

“The law is the law,” Mr. Cuomo said. “Are you a politician or are you a law enforcement officer? You have to pick. because it gets very dangerous when a law enforcement officer says I’m only to enforce the laws that I agree with.”

The sheriff’s announcement, posted on social media last Thursday, came one day after an announcement that inmate visitation would be suspended at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility as of Saturday, Nov. 21 to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“As this new wave of infection spreads in Suffolk County, we need to ramp up our efforts to keep it out of the correctional facilities, where social distancing is difficult,” Sheriff Errol Toulon said in a press release. “We were successful before, and we can do it again.”

Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor, pointed out that the sheriff’s opinion on enforcement of Thanksgiving gatherings is largely irrelevant since that’s not their responsibility.

“I believe the sheriff in Suffolk’s jurisdiction is actually the jails, not the constituents, so his opinion on this is even more irrelevant,” she said.

The social media post from the sheriff said: “Because some people have asked: The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office will not be participating in enforcement of Thanksgiving gatherings. We hope everyone will be mindful of the current health pandemic as we enter the holiday season. Enjoy your time with your families.”

Any enforcement efforts locally would begin with either the Riverhead Town or Southold Town police departments. Martin Flatley, chief of the Southold Town police, said officers will not be conducting compliance patrols, but would respond to any complaints received. David Hegermiller, chief of the Riverhead Town police, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

County officials have said the idea is not that officers will be going door-to-door to count the occupants inside a home. But the measures are meant to curb the rising spread of COVID-19 as more people gravitate indoors during the holiday season.

Mr. Cuomo said picking and choosing laws to enforce is “putting politics above the law and I think that is very dangerous,” while also noting the sheriff’s position is an elected one.

The guidelines on limited Thanksgiving gatherings follow a recent directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging Americans to avoid traveling for the holiday and to not spend the holiday with people outside their household.

“This is not political,” Mr. Cuomo said. “Donald Trump, his administration, his CDC, says celebrate only with your household.”

See the latest New York COVID-19 numbers here

Even without the increased gatherings of the holidays yet, current trends are showing a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases both across New York and locally. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said last week that rises in cases is from community spread. Defining that community spread can prove more challenging, as the New York Times noted in a story Monday. “Many epidemiologists are far less certain, saying there is little evidence to suggest that household gatherings were the source of the majority of infections since the summer,” the story states.

Statewide hospitalizations have increased by 128% from Nov. 3 to Nov. 23, the governor reported Tuesday. On Long Island, hospitalizations have increased by 149% from 141 to 351 over that same time. Riverhead hamlet this week was declared a yellow zone based on the state’s micro-cluster system.

Mr. Cuomo said if the holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day causes an increase of cases by 20% — a low estimate based on what experts predict — the positive test rate on Long Island could climb as high as 18.13% from its current rate of 3.24%. The current number of approximately 321 new hospitalizations per day on Long Island could climb as high as 1,456.

“That my friends is a real problem,” the governor said.

WITH STEVE WICK AND TARA SMITH

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