This is a letter to the editor from City of Ithaca Alderperson Seph Murtagh. To submit opinion letters, please review our letters policy here and submit them to Managing Editor Thomas Giery Pudney at

Over the last few weeks, the spread of COVID-19 has sent shockwaves through our community, shuttering schools and workplaces, upending our daily routines, and introducing us to new concepts like quarantines and social distancing. Like everyone else, I have been amazed at the speed with which our lives are changing. Most recently, New York State took action to halt evictions and suspend utility shutoffs. This is an important measure, as low-wage workers will be particularly hard hit by this crisis, and we must do everything in our power to keep people in their homes.

There’s no question these are scary times, and we need to be honest about the fear that people are feeling. Small-business owners are worried about losing their livelihoods and their dreams. Workers who are suddenly faced with layoffs are struggling to figure out how to take care of their families. Parents faced with school closures are scrambling to find childcare. Landlords, some of them only a few weeks away from foreclosure themselves, do not know how they will stay afloat if tenants cannot pay rent.

Magnify this across the state, the country, and the globe, and it adds up to an unparalleled catastrophe. Above all, there is fear about how COVID-19 will affect our loved ones and neighbors, especially the elderly and the vulnerable, and the healthcare workers and first responders who will be called to the front lines.

What makes this situation so unprecedented is that we don’t have a familiar reference point for where we find ourselves. None of us can remember 1918, the last time a pandemic of this magnitude struck our society. That leaves all of us adjusting day by day and even hour by hour to a reality that is new, frightening, and confusing.

The coming weeks are going to test us in extraordinary ways. Already we are seeing a tremendous outpouring of support from the local community, with neighbors organizing to look after each other and groups like Tompkins COVID-19 Mutual Aid Response forming to share resources and information. The Tompkins County and Cortland County Health Departments have done an exemplary job communicating with the public, regularly holding press conferences and tracking COVID-19 data on their websites. These efforts are inspiring and encouraging.

Much more will need to be done. New York State should immediately pass paid sick leave legislation to plug the loopholes in the federal bill that was passed by the House of Representatives over the weekend. Our local, state, and federal governments should work with nonprofits and foundations to create relief funds to help the vulnerable, and banks should be engaged to develop flexible payment options to help those facing a sudden loss of income.

Testing will need to become more widely available, and the state should provide additional funding to ensure that healthcare workers have adequate protective gear. New York should also be taking steps to safeguard the integrity of our elections by allowing no-excuse absentee balloting and sending voters ballots in the mail. And finally, we should all be calling on our federal government to enact a universal basic income.

This is by no means an exhaustive list; the response to this crisis is evolving at a rapid pace and the coming days are likely to present new and difficult challenges. As hard as it may be to imagine right now, we will get through this, and we will emerge stronger as a community. We have overcome serious adversity in the past. In 1903, a typhoid epidemic stemming from mismanagement of a privately-owned water system swept through Ithaca, sickening 1 out of every 10 residents and killing 82 people. We moved on from that crisis, embraced science, and today we have a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant, and diseases like typhoid and cholera are a thing of the past.

I’ve served 8 years in city government, and I’ve never had more faith in the power of this community to meet extraordinary challenges. The days ahead are going to be dark, stressful, and scary. All of us need to be doing what we can to take care of our own mental health. No virus can change the fact that we live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Take a hike by yourself in nature. Enjoy the birds, the trees, the sunshine. Take a break from the noise and confusion of Facebook. Check in on neighbors and loved ones. Spend time with pets and family. Breathe. And remember, we will get through this, one day at a time.

Seph Murtagh

City of Ithaca, 2nd Ward