Highway department quarantined

By LINDA DROLLINGER
Posted 12/1/20

LAKE HUNTINGTON, NY — It started with a birthday party on November 14. Someone at the party was already infected with COVID-19, probably asymptomatic and unaware that (s)he was a walking …

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Highway department quarantined

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LAKE HUNTINGTON, NY — It started with a birthday party on November 14. Someone at the party was already infected with COVID-19, probably asymptomatic and unaware that (s)he was a walking instrument of contagion.

Days later, when a positive diagnosis had been made and contact tracing begun, it was clear that the entire Town of Cochecton Highway Department had been exposed and would need to quarantine in isolation for 14 days.

The Cochecton Town Board held an emergency meeting on November 23 to review and formalize existing COVID-19 workforce protocols and to discuss highway department coverage during the quarantine period.

“It looks like we may be getting a break,” said Cochecton Supervisor Gary Maas in a November 27 phone conversation. “No snowstorms in the forecast before the quarantine ends on December 2.”

Asked what would happen if that were not the case, Maas said, “We’d look to our neighbors for help.”

That would not be an unusual circumstance; town highway departments in Sullivan County have been helping one another out for years. They’ve been known to lend each other heavy equipment, like chippers and steam rollers, and share human resources, as well, in extreme weather emergencies.

But COVID-19 is no respecter of town borders. The second-wave surge of infections is not confined to the Town of Cochecton. Town of Tusten Supervisor Ben Johnson admitted in a November 27 phone interview that he’s aware of Cochecton’s dilemma. “We are also in the process of developing workforce protocols, although ours will be contingent on standards established in accordance with upcoming highway department collective bargaining unit negotiations,” said Johnson.

Maas outlined the protocols that have been observed by his town highway department since last March. Department employees will maintain maximum safe social distance at all times. That means one person to a vehicle, necessitating the use of twice as many trucks. Before the pandemic outbreak, it was usual to have two men to one truck.

Masks will be worn by employees whenever they are in public spaces or come into contact with anyone else. Interaction with the public is discouraged unless absolutely necessary for job performance.

Drivers must thoroughly sanitize truck cabs at the end of each day, as well as those parts of the truck exterior that are subject to touch: door handles, mirrors and windows.

Johnson said Tusten has been doing likewise during warm weather months. “But now that it’s cold outside, we have to adjust for a winter schedule that usually includes equipment repair and maintenance done within the town garage, where social distancing becomes more problematic. The tentative plan is to divide the workforce in two, having team A on duty in the shop, and team B on call from home,” said Johnson, adding, “If there’s a snowstorm or any other weather situation that requires road clearance and treatment, the entire workforce will be on active duty.”

Asked if Tusten is prepared to help out Cochecton, should the need arise, Johnson said, “It’s usual for towns to come to the aid of their neighbors, and we’ll do what we can for them.”

Asked if Tusten is prepared to face a situation like the one in which Cochecton now finds itself, Johnson said, “Highway department employees must comply with all CDC guidelines while on the job, but what they do on their own time is another story.”

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