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State

State legislature ends some of Cuomo's pandemic orders

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The New York State Legislature for the first time rescinded some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions that were put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including an unpopular rule that prohibited bars and restaurants from serving alcohol unless the customer also ordered food.

Lawmakers said with the infection rate going down and vaccinations increasing, the restrictions are no longer needed. Cuomo said he was planning to end the orders anyway.

The Legislature voted to end an executive order that gave rise to the term “Cuomo chips” because bars and restaurants were not allowed to serve alcoholic drinks unless the customer also agreed to buy at least a small amount of food.

Sen. John Mannion, a Syracuse-area Democrat, speaking on the Senate floor, said the rule, while designed with good intentions, was a hardship to owners of restaurants and bars. Mannion, a former chemistry and biology professor who taught courses on viruses and other pathogens, said despite the governor’s claims that his decisions during the pandemic have been based on science, there is no evidence to support the restriction.

“I’ve yet to find any scientific literature that finds a correlation between ordering food with your drink and stopping the spread of COVID-19,” Mannion said.

Restaurant industry groups hailed the end of what they called a “burdensome mandate” that further harmed businesses financially devastated by the pandemic.

The action by Democrats, who lead both houses of the Legislature, comes at a time of tension between the governor and lawmakers. Cuomo is embroiled in several scandals, including allegations of sexual harassment and accusations of a cover-up of nursing home death numbers during the pandemic. Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said Cuomo should resign and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has authorized an impeachment inquiry.

The Legislature also ended some punishments for vaccine distributors, including an executive order that required health care providers to use up their allotment of vaccines in one week or face hefty fines.

Sen. Michelle Hinchey of the Hudson Valley said the rule is unnecessarily harsh and particularly hampered efforts in rural communities.

“Our small neighborhood pharmacists and those working creatively to deliver vaccines through pop-ups and door-to-door distribution should not bear the burden of this outdated and now harmful directive,” Hinchey said.

The third rescinded order could be viewed as a shot against Cuomo adviser Larry Schwartz, who worked as a volunteer to oversee the state’s vaccine distribution process.

Some county executives accused Schwartz of requiring that they declare their loyalty to Cuomo, and they were concerned that their counties might receive fewer vaccine doses if they did not say they backed the embattled governor. Schwartz and Cuomo deny that occurred.

The changes require that volunteers who assist with COVID-19 management now be treated as public officers, and they will have to comply with government disclosure and other transparency rules.

Republicans in the Legislature cheered the actions, but said they come too late and do not go far enough. Last month, Democrats in the Senate and Assembly passed a law to make it easier to change the governor’s executive orders, but this is the first time they have used those powers.

Sen. Peter Oberacker, a Republican who represents parts of the Mohawk Valley and Southern Tier, said all of the governor’s orders during the pandemic should end, and the Legislature should help create any new rules that might be required going forward. He said orders that require all bars and restaurants to close at midnight also make no sense.

“There are a number of unscientific, arbitrary executive orders that need to be terminated,” Oberacker said. “I truly hope today’s action is the beginning.”

Cuomo, in a statement, said he was already planning to lift some of the executive orders anyway. He said the rule requiring that bars and restaurants always serve food with beverage orders will end on May 3. He also said the midnight curfew will be discontinued for outdoor dining areas on May 17 and for indoor gatherings on May 31. The 1 a.m. curfew for catered events will also be lifted fully by the end of May.

A spokesman for the governor, Rich Azzopardi, said Cuomo and his staff are “pleased that the Legislature agrees” that enough progress has been made on fighting COVID-19 to allow the state to end the restrictions.

Azzopardi also responded to the change that would require Larry Schwartz and others who possessed volunteer status while helping Cuomo and his staff to manage the pandemic to register as public officers.

"In the state's darkest hour, Larry moved to Albany to volunteer 16-hour days to help manage pandemic response and operations, from contact tracing to the vaccine rollout,” Azzopardi said. “We are incredibly grateful for his dedication and service." 

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris said the governor did not seem at all happy when he learned earlier in the week of the Legislature’s planned actions.

“I assure you, the governor was not at all pleased that we are passing this repeal today,” said Gianaris, who added the governor’s announcement that he was rescinding the orders was a result of the Legislature’s planned actions.

Gianaris said more repeals are planned, and that lawmakers will “continue to assert ourselves as we see fit."

Cuomo has little recourse even if he were to disagree with the Legislature’s actions. The resolutions passed by wide margins, and Democrats hold a supermajority in both houses with enough members to override any potential vetoes.

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