BUFFALO, N.Y. — The COVID-19 pandemic brought New York State, and the country, to a screeching halt over 100 days ago. But with businesses and activities slowly reopening there is part of the population getting left behind, and they haven't seen their families in months.
Those living in a day hab or community living facility haven't seen their family members in months, aside from a video chat or awkward window visit.
"The fact that the state of New York has not even come close to a set of protocols or guidance or even communicated with them is at best negligent at worst criminal," said Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.
During a virtual press conference on Monday, he and three New York State Assemblymembers called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to ease visitation restrictions for day hab and community living facilities.
"From the moment things started to get closed the day program schools, visitation, I have been asking what about the special needs population," said NYS Assemblymember Melissa Miller. "It's a different population, they have different needs, how are we going to address it?"
Also on the call were Assemblymembers Ed Ra and Mary Beth Walsh. All of the politicians attending the virtual press conference were Republican.
Several parents spoke about the regression they're seeing from their loved ones through video chats and the occasional window visit.
"We are seeing him do things that he hasn't done since he was really young, and it's truly heartbreaking," said Bob Carpenter, a parent of a child in a community living facility. "The regression he has suffered could take years of intensive work on Bobby's behalf and that of his caregivers."
Carpenter went on to plead with Governor Cuomo to make the special needs community a priority and give them the attention he said they deserved.
During a press conference Monday, Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul, while discussing Phase 3 reopening in Western New York, addressed the issue with vague ambiguity:
"New York is absolutely looking at this. We understand the excruciating pain it is whether its someone wanting to visit a family member in a nursing home, or someone in one of these group homes where a child doesn't understand why they can't see their parents. We know how sad and how painful this is so we are currently having our office with people with disabilities work with the dept. of health to establish guidelines for visiting "
Hochul didn't provide any further insight as to when a decision could be made when 2 On Your Side's Leanne Stuck tried to follow-up that statement. Governor Cuomo made a similar statement last week, saying the New York State Department of Health was also looking at options.
2 On Your Side also tried asking questions to the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, OPWDD, which oversees facilities like day hab and community living housing. They provided an even longer statement than the Lt. Governor, and just as ambiguous:
"“We understand and hear the frustration and concern from families at not being able to visit or provide in-person comfort to their children who are currently living in a group home. But it’s also our responsibility to ensure the continued health and safety of the vulnerable population we support in group homes and the staff who support them, which is why based on the advice of health experts, we temporarily suspended home visits and visitation at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to cautiously proceed in reopening. In the meantime, we encourage providers of housing services to continue to engage families through the use of window visits, online video chats and phone calls and as New York proceeds with the process of reopening, OPWDD continues to work closely with the NYS Department of Health to develop a process and timeline to safely resume visitations and will announce those new guidelines soon.”
New York State officials have been regularly touting its leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, but now 100+ days later, other states are jumping ahead on this issue.
Massachusetts started allowing day hab and community living visitations on June 3 with strict guidelines:
- All visits must be scheduled in advance
- The visit must take place outdoors
- An employee trained in patient safety and infection control measures must be present.
- All visitors must have their temperature checked.
- Face masks required by all participants.
Meanwhile, as New York reopens, the frustration with parents with loved ones in these facilities continues to grow.
“If they can dine outside and now in some places inside in restaurants, and my son and everybody else can't leave the insides of their houses with no real justification for what the difference is in their treatment, it begins to feel like we are comfortable keeping everybody behind closed doors," said Mary Ann Allen, a parent with a child in a community living facility.
Allen, like the lawmakers on the call, wants to see a plan developed with a firm timetable, similar to the reopening phases that were announced in May.
"Develop a plan like they have for every other region and every other area of life in this state," Allen said. "With deadlines attached to it, that are something other than soon because that means nothing to many of the people that we support and their families."