Letter to the editor.
This is a letter to the editor from Assemblymember Barbara Lifton. To submit opinion letters, please review our letters policy here and submit them to Managing Editor Thomas Giery Pudney at tgpudney@ithacavoice.com.

Dear Friends,

As the discussion continues about the Cornell reopening plan, I’ve been asked by many constituents how they might best direct their concerns and questions about that plan. The NY State Department of Health (NYSDOH)  has the responsibility to review college and university reopening plans to see if they comply with the guidance NYSDOH issued several weeks ago (guidance), and they have final sign-off responsibility for those reopening plans. Including the Cornell plan.

I am told by the State DOH that this is — and will be — an on-going discussion, but Cornell has so far, I am told, complied with the guidance from DOH and, as we know, is proceeding with its plan.  Given the on-going nature of this new situation,  I think it’s still appropriate and valuable for those with concerns or questions to let both the DOH  and Governor Cuomo know about your concerns and any suggestions about changes you’d like to see.   You can email your concerns via the NY Pause site, link here: Click here to file a complaint — or by calling:  1-833-789-0470 and they will be sent to the NY State DOH.   If you also want to relay your concerns to Governor Cuomo, you can do that here:    gov.cuomo@chamber.state.ny.us.   And, of course, I hope you will let me know, as well, as I will also be watching this evolving situation closely. 

It’s also very important to note that the Commissioner of the State Health Department, Dr. Howard Zucker currently, has the legal authority to close down any activity by individuals, a business, an institution or any other entity, that seriously threatens the health of the general public.  It’s State DOH, not the Tompkins County Department of Health, that would, ultimately, make such a decision, if it were deemed necessary.

One last clarification, as a state legislator, I don’t have the authority to approve or disapprove Cornell’s plan, but I do believe I have an important role in raising the concerns of my constituents, some of which I share, both with Cornell directly, and with the state DOH.  As you likely know, to date, I have written two memos to Cornell with those questions and concerns, and have sent those memos to NYSDOH, to county and city officials, copying the Assembly Speaker and the chairs of the Assembly Committees on both Health and Higher Education.  Cornell has responded to the first memo which I have shared with you, and they tell me they are working to respond to the second memo.  I have also spoken directly on several occasions with Cornell to try to get more clarification on these important and complicated issues.

I have been misquoted in the local media, which reported that I “support” Cornell’s reopening plan.  I have never said that, privately or publicly, though I said I was “encouraged” by their robust testing regimen.  Nor have I said I don’t support their plan, though I have relayed some concern, particularly about the quarantine issues.   I don’t see my opining my official approval or disapproval as my proper role in this matter.  This a public health matter and these decisions should be, largely, decided by public health officials —  IF they have been shown to be highly-competent and trustworthy officials, as I believe Dr. Zucker, his staff and the consultants relied upon by the state, have proven themselves to be throughout this pandemic.  In my view, the proper role of a politician or legislator, under normal circumstances, is to make sure the voices of their constituents are heard in the process of making these difficult and consequential decisions.  I feel I have done that – and I will continue to do that as the local situation evolves in the days and weeks ahead.

Assemblymember Barbara Lifton, NY-125