City Beat and Arts & Entertainment Editor
BALLSTON SPA — The Saratoga County Office of Emergency Services this week hosted a panel discussion with members of the region’s education and medical communities.
As the second week of school gets underway locally, Superintendents Oliver Robinson – of the Shenendehowa Central School District, and Patricia Morris – of Stillwater Central School District, say: so far, so good.
“School is different this year. One of the things we were worried about is wearing masks and how kids will comply, but I have to tell you: kudos to our students from kindergarten through grade 12; kids have been absolutely great about following protocols, which has made the reopening so much smoother,” Robinson said.
“There are certain logistics that we simply could not anticipate until we started, such as the number of parents who drive their kids to school. There are things we have to make adjustments for - and we have. Transportation the first day was a bit of a traffic jam, the second day was better and by the end of the first week things were flowing very well. Most of our kids are eating lunch in the classroom, and the food service folks have figured out a system that works very smoothly. So, a lot of people came together with a mindset of what can we do to make it a reality.”
At Stillwater, Morris said a lot of “angst” in preparation for the fall semester has largely been resolved as a result of careful preparation and planning in advance of the start of a return to classes.
“We were very excited to welcome students back and it has been a whirlwind. It’s been wonderful seeing the kids,” Morris said. The biggest challenge, she said, has been working out the logistics to make everything run as smoothly as possible – keeping students safe while providing them an education.
“We looked at the needs of each grade level: our youngest kids through first grade we wanted those kids in every day being that they’re new learners; replicating the experience of a regular education for them while keeping them safe was important to us. A hybrid schedule is not ideal for anyone, it’s not that face-to-face, and fully remote certainly is not,” Morris said. “We would want all of our kids back in- person, but to do that we need to be safe. So we created a schedule that would allow grades 2 through 5 and then 6 through 8 to come in intermittently a couple of times a week, and then 9th through 12th graders are in one day a week, but they have a double period of their core classes.”
Figuring out the financial aspects under a tight budget will be another challenge. At Shenendehowa, Robinson said the district has spent over 1 million on various Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE’s - masks, sanitizers, and machines among them, and those types of things will be ongoing, not one-time expenses.
Cathleen Medick of the county office of public health added that experts are predicting a potential second wave of COVID in the fall as people become more active and schools go back in session.
“I think the most important thing anyone can do right now is to get a flu shot,” Medick said. “It’s also the beginning of flu season, and COVID and Influenza have very similar symptoms. Getting the flu shot will help keep the flu down and hopefully keep illness at bay. On average in a slow flu season 36,000 people die here in our country from the flu, so we don’t want to add to what’s happening with COVID - we’re up to about 200,000 people who have died in our country with COVID.” Physician offices as well as many pharmacies offer a flu shot, she said.
“It’s very hard to tell the difference between COVID and flu,” said Dr. David Mastrianni of Saratoga Hospital Medical Group, who also served as a panelist at the forum.
“There are a few symptoms that may lean you one way or another. What we’ve seen with COVID is a loss of taste and smell, but the reality is it’s going to be hard to tell. There are some people who have gotten very sick and other people who had minimal to no symptoms. There’s no one-size-fits-all, so when people are sick, they’re going to have to be evaluated for both, and we have tests for both,” Mastrianni said.
“We have a lot of experience with flu vaccine over many years. We know the effectiveness and we know the side effects. It is very safe. There are only very rare various reactions to it. It’s really important this year as we seek to avoid this confusion of COVID and the flu,” he added.
Members of the local medical community are hopeful mask-wearing and social-distancing to avoid the COVID infection will also result in less cases of the flu being transmitted. “Masking is absolutely critical and then when you add social distancing - that really is very effective. We think this is a key going forward,” Mastrianni said.
“I think the people in this community have done the right thing. We’ve gotten through those tough first few months where we had our ICU full and we had to open a second ICU. We took patients from New York here, and we saw the decline in cases as people did the right thing. We’ve gone through the summer now where we’ve had spots here and there, but overall people have done a very good job,” Mastrianni said. “I think we are ready for this. We need to be cautious and to know there will be cases, but that we can handle them and that we can work through this together.”
Robinson cautioned it’s not a time to let one’s guard down.
“We try to emphasize that parents remind kids when they’re out of school, those same protocols need to be practiced, because COVID isn’t generated in the school. It’s brought into the environment. So, wear masks, maintain social distancing, have good hand-hygiene,” Robinson said. “If you have a child that’s sick in any form or fashion, keep the child home. If people are diligent about that, we will continue to have a successful year. School is part of the community and we’re in this together.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — An expansion at the Excelsior Park complex is being reviewed by the city Planning Board.
The area of review is off Excelsior Avenue, located north of the VFW Post 420 in a wooded area bordered by Spring Run Trail. Excelsior Park Phase 1 has been constructed and Phase 2 has previously been approved and is under construction.
The Excelsior Park Project currently under review proposes a mixed-use development that includes 163 residential units, 36,200 square feet of commercial space, a banquet facility, spa, swimming pool, and a 60-room hotel with a 200-seat restaurant.
The residential component includes a variety of single and multi-bedroom apartments, townhouses and condominiums. The original application for the project was made in November 2017 and first presented to the Planning Board in early 2018.
Plans call for the construction of three new structures – the largest of which will stand 50 feet high and 250 feet wide. The Excelsior Park expansion is anticipated to occur over several phases and cover nearly 35 acres with a start date of June 2021.
The group presenting the proposal is represented by The Chazen Companies - a multi-disciplinary firm providing clients in both the private and public sectors with a everything from land surveying, planning, and landscape architecture to construction services.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Moby Rick’s Seafood, which formerly served as Pepper’s Market & Deli is slated for demolition this month. The Lake Avenue building dates to 1891, according to the business’ current inhabitants. Demolition was approved in May regarding the building at 173 Lake Ave, and proposals call for a new two-family dwelling to be constructed in its place. Moby Rick’s Seafood will be relocating to 170 South Broadway.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Buckle your seat belts, the battle lines have been drawn.
In November, on Election Day, city residents will be asked to consider a change in the only form of governing that Saratoga Springs has known since its inception as a city in 1915. The last time a citizen-led City Charter referendum proposed change, which took place in 2017, a tense nine-day post-election period was required to await the return of absentee ballots that would decide the winner. In the end, nearly 9,000 residents voted in all and the referendum to replace the long-standing commission form of governing was defeated by a total of 10 votes.
That razor-thin margin in 2017 was a continuation of an ever-tightening vote differential in community-led proposals for change: a 2006 referendum proposing a change to a strong-mayor form of government was voted down by roughly a 62-38 percent difference, and a 2012 proposal was defeated 58-42 percent.
This time around, the proposed charter reform calls for the creation of a six-person council whose members would be elected from six newly created neighborhood “wards,” a mayor elected by voters city-wide, and the hiring by the council of a city manager.
Last week, a pro-charter change citizens campaign committee called Common Sense Saratoga, staged their kick-off campaign at High Rock Park.
“Why am I here today? When I was in office, politics was the primary thing, unfortunately,” said Ron Kim, former city Public Safety Commissioner and currently a co-chair of Common Sense Saratoga. “Each of the commissioners protected their own turf. That’s not the way I wanted to operate, but that’s the way things were. Everyday citizens would meet roadblocks for the simple things,” Kim said. “It was open to those who were connected, who had their own attorneys, who had a voice through the political end. That’s cronyism. That’s not representative government.”
The current “Commission” form of governing features five council members – one mayor, plus four commissioners heading the departments of Public Safety, Public Works, Finance, and Accounts, respectively. Each council member is responsible for administering their own department as well as serving as legislators. In this council of five, each of whom is elected to two-year terms, decisions are made by majority rule.
Kim said the change in the form of governing would provide more accountability, representation and transparency. “City wide commissioners who manage bureaucracies don’t, as a first priority, represent people. They represent the department. I know. I was there.”
Saratoga Works - a group opposing the charter change and in favor of maintaining the status quo, launched their first gathering two weeks ago.
Led by co-chairs Connie Woytowich and Jane Weihe, the Saratoga Works group argue a change in Saratoga Springs’ current form of government would be risky during a time of a pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, deliver an “expensive version of charter change” and would politicize neighborhoods by dividing them into wards.
Kim and the Common Sense Saratoga group scoffed at criticisms that a ward-based system would pit neighborhoods in competition with one another as being “cynical” and argued that the ward system similarly aligns with most representative governments such as Congress and Senate representation.
Addressing costs, he said swapping the salary and benefit package costs of the five councilmembers and their five deputies in the current form in favor of a city manager, a mayor, and six ward council members in the proposed reform would provide taxpayer savings.
Saratoga Works argues that even as some city deputy or assistant salary costs would be saved, new workers would still need to be hired to conduct the work the current city employees are doing, increasing financial ramifications.
The designated wards of the proposed referendum are as follows: “Inner East Side” Ward 1 - Election Districts 4, 8, 9 and 12; “North Side” Ward 2 - Districts 1,2,3, 24 and 25; “Outer East Side” Ward 3 - Districts 5, 15, 17 and 22; “South Side” Ward 4 - Districts 10, 13, 14 and 23; “South West Side” Ward 5 - Districts 16, 18, 20 and 21; “West Side” Ward 6 - Districts 6, 7, 11 and 19. Each ward counts approximately 2,900 to 3,400 currently registered voters.
A total of 1,565 registered voters signed the petition to put the proposal on the ballot. If approved by voters in November, the measure is anticipated to take effect in January 2022.
The concept of a Commission form of government was founded in Galveston, Texas in 1901 after a storm ravaged that city, killing more than 5,000 people and creating the need for a useful way of post-disaster governing. It proved to be an efficient measure as well as a popular one. By 1912, 206 cities in 34 states had followed suit. Saratoga Springs adopted the commission form of governing shortly after it was incorporated as a city in 1915. Since its popularity in the early 20th century, however, many cities have since switched to other forms.
For more information about the pro-charter change referendum, go to: commonsensesaratoga.org. For more information about the group opposed to change of the city’s current form of government, go to: saratogaworks.org.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Temperatures were taken at the door and mask-wearing visitors shared their contact information on a sign-in sheet. A scattering of chairs were set socially-distanced from one another inside the council room.
For the first time in 25 months, the city this week hosted an on-site public meeting at City Hall. The 1871 building has been closed since an Aug. 17, 2018 lightning strike and subsequent fire and water damage forced its closure. An extensive, multi-million dollar renovation project followed. The building has yet to be fully re-opened. This week’s City Council meeting allowed for the temporary opening of a side entryway and main floor hallway and council room use. The building is expected to open to the public on Sept. 28.
City Council Meeting:
•The city resident U.S. Census 2020 response rate is 63% - “far below our goal of 80%,” Mayor Meg Kelly said Tuesday night. “Each child counted in the census represents, on average, $2,700 per year for our school district’s federal funding every year for the next 10 years.” Residents who have not already done so, are asked to complete the census questionnaire at: My2020census.com.
• The council adopted a resolution to extend temporary outdoor seating areas through Oct. 31. A previously adopted resolution allowing more space for restaurants to seat customers - as per COVID protocols – expires Oct. 7.
• Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan announced the city’s proposed 2021 Comprehensive Budget will be presented at the next City Council meeting, on Tuesday Oct. 6. The budget is currently working with $41.9 million in revenues for the 2021 budget – down from the $48.7 million budget adopted this year – a pandemic related shortfall of just over $7 million. “This is one of the most challenging budgets that I’ve faced during my 9-year tenure,” Madigan said. “Without assistance from the Federal government for state and local governments, and in particular for the city of Saratoga Springs, we are looking at large across-the-board expense reductions.”
• The search is underway for a Public Health Commissioner at the county Board of Supervisors. The hiree will be, for the first time at the county level, a medical doctor, Supervisor Matt Veitch said.
• The county is initiating a lease agreement to run Oct. 1 – March 31 with Shelters of Saratoga at the county’s building at 31 Woodlawn Ave. A portion of the building is to be used as a potential overflow location for the Code Blue emergency shelter. That main shelter is located on Adelphi Street. The building will also house a variety of county departments - employment & training, veterans, Dept. of Social Services, and Mental Health – to assist the homeless population, Supervisor Tara Gasto added. The county is seeking a buyer for the building, and the city is interested in purchasing it, Mayor Kelly said.
• Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton informed the council she is developing a report regarding homeless and vagrancy issues on Woodlawn Avenue, which is anticipated to be presented at the next City Council meeting.
ALBANY — The state is launching a new website that will provide COVID-19 infection rates for every school district across New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week.
Every school district must report every day to the Department of Health how many tests were taken and the results of those tests. The data will be posted to a state website and count both students and staff, regardless of whether the school is in-person, remote, or a hybrid of both.
“We’re going to have a COVID report card for every school in the state,” Cuomo said. “I think this will give parents confidence and teachers confidence. They will know on a day-to-day basis exactly what is happening. They won’t be reliant (just) on the school district or the principal.”
Any parent who wants to know how their school is doing may check on the status by punching in their zip code. When that site goes live, it may be found at: www.SchoolCOVIDReportCard.health.ny.gov.
Colleges across the country are seeing outbreaks. 108 colleges have reported more than 100 cases each. Today, the NYS DOH will issue regulations to require colleges to notify the state when they have less than 100 COVID-19 cases and may have to transition to remote learning.
A COVID-19 Case Tracker for SUNY schools may be viewed at: www.suny.edu/covid19-tracker.
A dashboard that shows aggregate data related to testing, infection rates and alert levels at Skidmore College may be viewed from the college website, via skidmore.edu/fall-
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Saratoga Casino Hotel reopened their doors to the public, Sept. 9, after being closed for nearly six months due to COVID-19 protocols.
The scheduled 2 p.m. opening was moved up one hour earlier to accommodate hundreds of people who queued up outside beneath entryway signs that read “Welcome Back!” and “We’ve Missed You.” The line of people continued atop the extended sidewalk and deep into the parking lot.
Last week Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced casinos were permitted to reopen starting Sept. 9 with a 25% occupancy limit and strict enforcements of guidelines including face coverings, social distancing, and enhanced air filtration and cleaning protocols.
“We’re open,” Saratoga Casino Hotel General Manager Alex Tucker said simply, watching as people moved along the pattern of shoe prints painted atop the pavement with the spacing requirements of social distancing in mind. The large reopening day crowd was not a surprise.
“We had a feeling this was going to happen because of how long it’s been and there’s also been a lot of chatter on social media,” Tucker said. “This is the new normal. We’re asking people to be patient, and we’re really trying to do this as safely as we can and still ensure guests have a great experience.”
Over the past several months, Saratoga Casino Hotel developed a plan to implement physical modifications as well as policy and procedural changes to protect the health and safety of workers and attendees. That “Safe Bet Plan” includes heightened cleaning, sanitation and hygiene protocols, the use of MERV-13 air filters throughout the property, the Installation of several hand sanitation stations and other measures. All guests will be required to enter and exit through the south entrance, located near Crescent Avenue.
The 25% building occupancy enforcement equals 800 to 900-person capacity, Tucker said.
“We have driver license scanning for contact tracing – it’s an opt-in program. You can opt-in, or you don’t have to. Masks are required. Were going to take your temperature, social distancing inside the building, six feet in between the machines in every direction.”
The property first began hosting harness races in 1941. The season was extended in 1978 to include winter racing, and also began to host recreational events and music festivals to make ends meet, when the introduction of off-track betting plunged the sport into decline.
In early 2004, video lottery terminals arrived, contributing to the annual purses of the harness track. The machines have been credited by some with saving the local harness racing industry. A 2007 expansion brought with it the on-premises Vapor nightclub and in 2016 a $40 Million project developed a 117-room hotel with an indoor resort, steakhouse and other amenities.
Hours will be limited to 10 a.m.-2 a.m. The four-hour shutdown will allow time for proper disinfecting and sanitation, the company says.
The Hotel, Morton’s The Steakhouse and the Jackpot Deli with simulcasting are all currently open. Casino amenities such as cocktail service, Mane Bar, Garden Buffet and Vapor remain closed. Their reopening will be reevaluated as restrictions are lifted.
Earlier this summer, the city of Saratoga Springs received $1.86 million in funding from the state for hosting a center with the video gambling terminals in the community.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — A new six-story building to be constructed atop a currently vacant lot is under consideration for architectural review this week by the Design Review Commission.
The building location is 269 Broadway – just north of Saratoga Central Catholic School at 247 Broadway, and just south of NBT Bank at 295 Broadway.
According to plans submitted to the city, the building will measure 70 feet tall, 82 feet wide and 179 feet long.
The mixed-use building is proposed to consist of retail on the first floor, office and restaurant on the second floor, and offices on floors three through six. According to plans, approximately 2,250 square feet of civic space will be provided between the first floor and Broadway. Two levels of underground parking will contain 71 spaces.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — The city will host its annual 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 11 at the Tempered by Memory Sculpture at High Rock Park. The 25-foot-tall sculpture was commissioned by Saratoga Arts and created by artists Noah Savett and John Van Alstine from five twisted pieces of Trade Center steel. Four pieces came from the North Tower, one came from the South Tower.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — With the return of students for the fall semester, Skidmore College announced it has developed contingency plans should the transmission of COVID-19 spike among the college community.
As of this week, Skidmore reports 2 total positive tests to date – counting students and employees – and 6 people in quarantine. The dashboard may be viewed at: www.skidmore.edu/fall-planning/dashboard.php.
The college contingency plan is framed by five “alert levels” of increasing severity. They are:
Alert Level 1 - At this lowest level of alert, very few positive test results exist, and contact tracing shows a very limited number of employees and students on campus may have been exposed. Epidemiological analysis and contact tracing suggest that the situation can be contained, isolated and controlled. Affected students and employees are quarantined pursuant to DOH guidelines and this Plan. Affected areas are contained, isolated and decontaminated. Other campus operations or residential life activities are not affected.
Alert Level 2 - The number of positive test results and numbers of exposed individuals in quarantine are slightly higher than at the lowest level of alert, but Saratoga County Public Health is able to conduct effective and timely contact tracing and the college has been able to act swiftly to identify, isolate and contain transmission. There is no evidence of community transmission at this level. This level may require limiting operations in specific operations, areas or programs for a period of time to prevent ongoing exposure. A larger number of students, employees and/or facilities could be impacted but that impact is likely to remain time limited and is directly related to specific and already identified infections.
Alert Level 3 - A small outbreak has occurred on campus in a defined population, such as a building, department or residence hall. Confidence in the ability to accurately complete contact tracing in a timely way is moderate. It is also the case that it may be difficult to identify a specific area for containment, isolation and remediation. This level may require shutting down the areas impacted by the outbreak but does not require a campus-wide shutdown. Select programs may move back into an online-only environment with non-resident students staying off campus, resident students staying in their rooms and non-essential affected employees working from home. Individuals who test positive and who have been exposed are isolated and quarantined, potentially in bulk (e.g., entire building or more). The College may order shelter-in-place for students (stay and study in their rooms). Careful consideration will be given to whether on-campus services for employees, such those provided by the Greenberg Childcare Center, can be maintained.
Alert Level 4 - The College is experiencing a sizeable outbreak, as evidenced by numbers of current cases, increases in positive test rates or by multiple positive tests without clear sources of infection, and the College has clear evidence that contact tracing, containment, isolation and remediation efforts are not effective The College will “pause” and move to remote learning alternatives and remote work arrangements where possible. Non-resident students and employees whose presence on campus is not essential to the College’s daily operations will be restricted from coming on campus. Resident students will be required to shelter in place or return home for the pause. The “pause” is intended to be temporary (one to four weeks) and to control further transmission.
Alert Level 5 - The situation has escalated to the point where ongoing campus or community transmission is occurring at a significant rate. There is no realistic strategy to contain or control the situation. Given the timing in the academic calendar, the College has no other option than to shut down on-campus operations completely. All campus operations come to a halt, non-essential employees shift to remote work arrangements when possible, and students move to remote learning for the remainder of the semester. Campus will close for the rest of the semester and students will be moved out following the College’s protocol. Those unable to leave will appeal to remain on campus. Skidmore College will support any student who, for financial or other hardship reasons, cannot depart campus in response to a shutdown scenario.
If the College’s RO infection rate is < or = 1, meaning individuals who are infected infect no more than one other person, Skidmore says it will generally be able to continue in-person learning. Scenarios necessitating decreasing on-campus activities and operations or closing the campus will be communicated to all faculty, staff, students and parents by email and the College’s Fall Planning website.