Covid-19 takes a viral spin on New York’s divisions

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You might call it New York’s “new politics,” even though the concept has been around for decades.

Upstate vs. downstate, region vs. region – now Covid-19 style. In a time when Republican vs. Democrat means little in an ultra-blue state, it may shape our political debate for the foreseeable future.

Take last week’s downtown soirée organized by tea party guy Rus Thompson. He summoned about 150 vehicles to Niagara Square, demanding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo “reopen” the state. One protester on television said he was sick of being lumped in with New York City, that the coronavirus crisis was manifesting itself on the other side of the state, and Cuomo should take heed.

Enter Buffalo developer Carl Paladino, who unsuccessfully challenged Cuomo for governor in 2010. Paladino said back then that he was “mad as hell” at the way the state conducts its affairs. It appears he still is, especially after closing five of his 10 hotels and laying off 451 workers since the lockdown was imposed. He says businesses should be trusted to enforce their own social distancing rules.

“This governor treats upstate and downstate like it’s the same place,” Paladino told the Politics Column a few days ago. “He’s unnecessarily crucifying the upstate economy because of downstate.

“If I were governor I’d draw a line at Westchester County, along with Long Island, and say ‘enough,’ ” he added. “He never understood upstate even before this thing.”

Other Republicans expressed similar thoughts, even if they eschewed the bullhorn in Niagara Square approach. Rep. Tom Reed of Corning, contemplating a challenge to Cuomo in 2022, joined with several other Republicans last week to call for a gradual business reopening in some parts of the state.

It was their way of reflecting the sign in Niagara Square that read: “We are not NYC.”

“This one-size-fits-all type of approach that the governor of the State of New York is looking to do needs to be challenged,” Reed said. “What we can do for the region that we represent here in upstate Western New York – essentially from Buffalo to Rochester to Jamestown to Binghamton – is we can open up this area, and do it in a way that’s safe enough to get people back to work.”

State Sen. Rob Ortt of North Tonawanda chimed in, insisting the state has to get back to work. And when you get right down to it, nobody can argue.

“We’ve got to recognize that at some point, we’re going to have to return to some level of economic activity,” Ortt said, “and that’s going to happen before we have a vaccine.”

Even Cuomo noted reality while in Buffalo on Tuesday, recommending that New York’s economic activity resume on a regional basis.

“Just like some states will reopen before other states because they have a different circumstance when it comes to Covid, and their status with Covid, it’s also true across the state,” he said at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. “North Country has a totally different situation than New York City. Central New York has a different situation. We operate as one state but we also have to understand variations and you do want to get this economy open as soon as possible, and if a situation is radically different in one part of the state than another part of the state, take that into consideration.”

Then again, the governor very much adopted a “we’re all one state approach” a few weeks ago when he proposed the National Guard would move urgently needed ventilators from upstate to New York City. That sparked an upstate backlash from Cuomo’s own Democrats – County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Rep. Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Sean Ryan. New York’s new politics sometimes ignores party lines.

All of this resurrects that “upstate should secede” crazy talk that rears its ugly head every few years. It’s been around since the Politics Column first sat down at the Royal typewriter (wasn’t Grover Cleveland governor?).

That won’t ever happen. But if Democrat vs. Republican doesn’t work, there’s always upstate vs. downstate.

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