Room for Improvement

If you have never been to an Escape Room you should try it at some point in 2021. Why? Because you have lived through 2020 and you are, whether you know it or not, an expert at this game. Mark Hamilton, Executive Director of the Plattsburgh Housing Authority, likened 2020 to an escape room where players try to find a way out. Just when you think you’ve cracked the code, the landscape shifts and another door presents another lock. It comes with another riddle, and all the while you have no idea how you will recognize the finish line when you cross it.

Hamilton described the situation the world has lived for the past year. He explained how the Plattsburgh Housing Authority felt the effects of the pandemic with rapid fire changes in regulations, issues of positive testing, underfunding, and unpaid rents. He said, “Near the end of November we had about $90,000 that we had yet to be able to collect in rent and that creates a number of challenges. There is an eviction moratorium throughout New York State. Courts are not hearing eviction cases.” Hamilton prides his team on creating a safe and healthy community but with some households involved in criminal and drug activity and no way to remove them, the safety of other residents, including the children who live there, continues to be somewhat unstable.

Despite his observation about the challenges, Hamilton was still optimistic. “We don’t want these families evicted. Our goal is to house families and provide services, not to evict families. We are working with local agencies to assist the families that truly need the help. We’re in constant communication with them, not in a threatening way but to create a dialog to find resolution to the issues.”

Keeping the 601 apartments safe has been a challenge for Hamilton’s team. “We had to keep our team safe, and looking back, it has made us incredibly resilient as an organization. We were able to work as a team to get through it. We’re not through it yet, but we’ve been able to navigate this in a way that I’m really proud of.”

Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said that in many ways his hands have been tied. He pointed to multiple cases where substance abuse, crime and arrests related to mental health issues are even more difficult to manage in this environment. Without getting too far down the rabbit hole of bail reform Wylie said, “We are not able to address the issues in detail and we certainly haven’t been able to go forward in the court system to get dispositions on cases, even when that would be in the best interest of everyone involved.”

COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on the justice system in Clinton County as well as throughout the state, he explained. From March to mid-summer the court system was shut down and Wylie’s office was unable to present cases to the grand jury. He said, “The courts gradually reopened and we have been able to address pending cases through in-court appearances, grand jury presentations and we held two felony trials in County Court.” Wylie pointed out that even as this article is being written, COVID-19 cases are on the rise and the court system is shutting down again. He explained, “We will continue to use formats such as Skype and Microsoft Teams meetings for virtual court conferences and appearances likely well into 2021.”

Wylie expressed a measure of frustration, leaning on colleague Richelle Gregory who shares with him the burden of an uphill climb for those impacted by poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, and other negative pandemic effects.

The effects of what Gregory, the Director of Community Services at Clinton County Mental Health & Addiction Services, called “societal trauma” can be seen across all demographics as the effects of the pandemic and economic downturn ripple through the community. “We are starting to see the effects of social isolation on behavioral health which includes increased substance use or relapses because of fear and anxiety.” She added, “There are major hurdles to providing families and children with mental health treatment. There is an atmosphere of uncertainty (among the staff) and the balance of home and work while remaining able to safely serve the behavioral health community has proven challenging.” With deep and enduring unemployment creating new layers of poverty and strain on families and individuals, Gregory expects to see the impact of the trauma response show itself in the months and years to come.

Discussion around the pandemic was weighty, but a surprising number of unforeseen benefits have risen to the surface. Gregory explained that the mental health field has been trying to get regulations in place for telehealth for a long time. She said, “The COVID pandemic launched behavioral health technology usage at a meteoric speed, and accomplished in months what had been discussed for years.”

According to Town of Plattsburgh Supervisor, Michael Cashman, the pandemic has created an opportunity to shine a light on problems that have existed in our community for a long time. “Some people have been living in a fairly sheltered world and don’t understand the complexities of the issues in our community,” he said. “We know that broadband has been an issue. We have known what it might be like to have the border closed.” He explained that the state is aware of the challenges we are facing and there is an opportunity for response.

Cashman continued, “People can get political and say that Governor Cuomo has done a great job or a bad job, but one real benefit is the implementation of the dashboards and phase structure. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been perfect, but you can recalibrate a plan. Without a plan you have nothing to go by, and that’s what we need in order to meet our challenges. We need to put the issues on the table, have the conversations and get our hands, our hearts and our minds around them so the appropriate people can create partnerships and just get things done.” He emphasized the need for public/private partnerships and the urgency for a federal response. In the meantime, the Town of Plattsburgh has had to make some difficult budget decisions. “It is critical to understand that the Canadian border is unlikely to open up until well into 2021. In light of the impact of that we paired our budget by approximately 20 percent — approximately $900,000 and, for local government that’s significant. There’s not a lot of cream in the coffee.”

Mike Carpenter is the president of The Northeast Group and the MHAB Lifeskills Campus. Speaking as a board member for the North Country Chamber of Commerce he said, “The Chamber has pushed hard for a task force to at least begin the planning process of reopening the border. The economic effect of the closure is in the billions of dollars. Thankfully they didn’t close the commercial side of business.” He explained The Northeast Group is heavily dependent on Canadians who export into the United States.

Carpenter is concerned about other businesses in the region as well. He said, “We have people working in this community who are directly or indirectly tied to the Canadian economy. Hotels and restaurants need Canadians to come to the area.”

Carpenter’s concern is the economic downturn’s effect. “Commodity items continue to be sold because people have to purchase the things they need. High-end items continue to be sold because wealthy people don’t typically struggle when the economy goes bad. But middle priced items? Those companies go out of business pretty rapidly because the middle class has been hit so hard by this.” Carpenter added that COVID has placed tremendous restrictions on how business needs to be done, which has driven up expenses.

Shifting to focus on the pandemic’s effect on MHAB and its residents Carpenter said, “We have seen rising numbers in drug and alcohol use, domestic violence, and increased suicides and depression. One of the main components of dealing with these issues is personal interaction and so social distancing and isolation are in direct conflict with that. We have been able to keep some of our face to face meetings going at our facility and the recovery center and that has helped our residents stay connected. The long term effects of the pandemic on mental health and addiction will become apparent in the months and years ahead. The more quickly we are able to move on, the better results we will see.”

Alex Barie has experienced the strain resulting from the closed border. She is a Licensed NYS Associate Broker at CDC Real Estate and works largely with commercial development. The border closure delayed several companies who otherwise might have relocated to the U.S. Barie said, “CDC is in the business of selling our zip code, so of course it has affected the business community.” Barie’s team has stayed connected with partners in Canada, and has used Zoom and other online platforms to effectively market the North Country. She said, “We see a lot of our Canadian clients realizing that they can’t afford to have the border closed. This may mean we start to see more businesses looking to secure a location in the United States in order to obtain work visas so they are able to travel back and forth.”

When asked about whether the border closure is the largest looming issue in her professional arena, Barie said, “It is one of the most important factors but the mental health picture is also very important. If you don’t have people who are healthy and working and who feel safe enough to go to work, it’s going to be an issue.”

Dr. Kris Ambler, an internist in private practice, said everyone in healthcare is experiencing a serious financial downturn. “The negative effects of the pandemic have impacted different sectors in health care differently. Pediatricians, procedural specialists and hospitals have been most negatively affected.” Ambler said if anyone has questions about whether masks or social distancing works, just ask local pediatricians. The incidence of coughs and colds has plummeted, and pediatricians are seeing far fewer patients.

Telehealth has made medical treatment more accessible to so many individuals, and it has positively affected Dr. Ambler’s practice. “Our first priority is the safety of our patients and staff. To continue to provide care, using a telehealth platform became a necessity for all of us,” he said. His office is currently using a hybrid model for health care delivery and is seeing patients through both telemedicine and in-person evaluations as long as the incidence of COVID remains low. The temperature checks, screening protocol and the level/presence of COVID-19 in the community has Dr. Ambler and his team feeling comfortable enough to continue to see some patients in the office.

“The pandemic has taken a serious financial and emotional toll on society and in health care resulting in practice closures across the nation,” Ambler said. “Fortunately, I do not see that happening in our region. Practices are experiencing difficult times but should be able to continue to provide care. We should be able to ride this out.”

For leaders who are shouldering the decisions, financial burdens and safety of others Rachelle Gregory reminded us, “Trauma looks different for everyone, and just because you are holding it together, doesn’t mean your body isn’t producing a chemical response to help you get there.” She warned of the lasting side-effects that can come with anxiety and urged people to remember to take care of themselves in the months ahead.

Each of us has faced tremendous adversity this year. We’ve become focused, exhausted, flexible, determined, and most importantly, resilient. With what we have learned from this year’s Pandemic Escape Room, we can make 2021 a healthier year for our businesses, our community and our families