ALBANY – Assemblywoman Karen McMahon, a Williamsville Democrat, started her day Sunday with a mandatory order from Erie County health officials to quarantine in her home – and then had the order dropped by Sunday night.
McMahon's whirlwind Sunday came a day after two members of the state Assembly tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
“I’m fine, other than a little freaked out,’’ the lawmaker said in an interview Sunday evening. She said she did not have close contact with the two infected lawmakers and had asked Erie County health officials to amend the quarantine order to voluntary.
Some eight hours later, local officials lifted the quarantine order. She said state health officials, instead, will oversee quarantine status for New York's state legislators. The general population is overseen by local health officials.
The development, however, raises questions about the return of lawmakers to Albany on Monday and whether the Capitol acted soon enough in previous weeks to protect officials, staffers and visitors to the seat of state government in New York.
Lawmakers are due back Monday to take up just two bills – granting paid sick leave to people with coronavirus and amending ballot access rules for people running in the June congressional and state political contests. Officials Sunday night were looking at everything from sharp restrictions on how people can be on the legislative floors to potentially allowing “virtual” voting.
The Assembly’s return comes despite state health protocols that seem to require anyone who came within six feet of the two legislators who tested positive – Brooklyn Democrats Helene Weinstein and Charles Barron – be placed in mandatory quarantine for 14 days.
Weinstein said Saturday she had not been in Albany since March 4 and that she was not symptomatic until March 11. Barron, sources say, appeared to be ill the last time he was in Albany in early March.
Assembly Democrats were told Sunday by Speaker Carl Heastie that they are expected in Albany on Monday for a one-day session. “We are trying to delicately balance our constitutional duties while at the same time attempting to adhere to DOH (Department of Health) protocols and keep the public safe,’’ Heastie said Sunday night.
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, said non-essential staff will be barred from the Assembly floor and that voting could even be done via “virtual” means, though it is uncertain if state law will permit that.
Lawmakers are being advised not to let visitors into their legislative offices across the street from the Capitol – which was ordered closed to visitors due to coronavirus worries – and that they will be kept from the usual congregating in halls or lengthy floor speeches. Floor voting could be spread out with a minimum of lawmakers on the floor at any one time.
While Heastie and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Saturday night that all Assembly members and staff would be tested, on Sunday legislators were told testing will be more limited – such as for those who sit near the two lawmakers on the floor or in closed-door conferences.
Why return to Albany now? “There is a feeling that we need to do certain business,’’ Peoples-Stokes said of the paid-sick leave bill – which has not yet been made public – that will help protect the finances of people who get the virus.
Lawmakers are expected to be in Albany only on Monday and then come back again before March 31 to approve a new state budget.
More than one lawmaker raised concerns about the return to Albany and whether more members should be in quarantine.
On Sunday, Cuomo appeared to have little patience about the prospect that lawmakers might temporarily stay away from the Capitol. He said lawmakers could meet in a “bigger room” if they are worried about getting the virus, and that others – from first responders to doctors and nurses – are still on the job.
“If you didn’t want to do a public service at a time of crisis then you shouldn’t be here,’’ Cuomo said. He added: “It’s not like they’re working in a hospital or taking blood. They’re working in a state Capitol, reading paper and passing bills.”
McMahon, an attorney, was elected to the Assembly in 2018 when she defeated then-Assemblyman Ray Walter, a Republican. She represents Amherst, Williamsville and Pendleton.
In an interview, McMahon said she has had no contact with anyone in Erie County who tested positive. (Three people locally have tested positive for the virus as of early Saturday evening.)
She said her contacts with Weinstein, who is the chair of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, and Barron were not close. She thinks the mandatory quarantine order – instead of a voluntary one – was the result of “a miscommunication” between her and Erie County health officials. She said she first raised the matter in a phone call Saturday night with Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein after state officials revealed the positive tests for the two downstate lawmakers; Erie health officials then contacted her Sunday morning and issued the quarantine order.
Both quarantine levels last for 14 days. She said there are other Assembly lawmakers, however, who did have closer contact with Weinstein and Barron and that they have should have “much greater concerns than I do” about exposure.
Shortly after 6 p.m., McMahon said the quarantine order was removed, and new powers – which she could not immediately explain – were given to the state health department over lawmakers' quarantine conditions.
Known, confirmed cases of coronavirus first came to the United States in late January. McMahon wonders why steps weren’t taken earlier at the state Capitol, which on session days sees soaring density levels as lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists and special interest group representatives and citizens fill the hallways.
“We didn’t really prepare in the Capitol. It was business as usual right until last week. Clearly, that was a foolish way to operate,’’ McMahon said.