New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has until the end of Monday to decide whether to extend some of her last remaining emergency powers as she continues to scale back the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
Hochul has two COVID-related executive orders that are due to expire this month, including a measure that allows her administration to purchase COVID-related goods and services without a competitive bidding process. Over much of the past year, she has extended both orders month after month, arguing that they remained a necessary precaution while the pandemic lingers and transmission rates fluctuate.
But the governor has been facing increasing political pressure — including from her GOP opponent, Rep. Lee Zeldin, and Republicans in the Legislature — to relinquish the last of her pandemic-spurred powers, particularly as her administration has relaxed masking requirements on public transit.
So far, Hochul hasn’t said whether she will allow the orders to lapse, which could provide yet another signal that the state is winding down its COVID preventative measures. In August, the last time Hochul issued a monthly extension, she suggested she wanted to get through the early part of September before making a decision.
“Let’s just get through the opening of schools, let’s get through more people coming back to work after Labor Day, and then let’s assess it at that time,” she said late last month.
Spokespeople for the governor did not respond to questions on whether she would extend the order allowing her administration to circumvent the bidding process expiring Monday.
The two soon-to-lapse orders don’t have anything to do with masking requirements or similar COVID precautions, which have largely been issued by the Department of Health or other state agencies since then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s broader-reaching emergency powers expired in 2021.
Instead, they deal with two key areas of the state’s COVID response: contracting and health care personnel.
The first order, due to sunset on Monday, allows Hochul’s administration to circumvent normal state contracting procedures when purchasing goods and services related to the pandemic, removing the oversight from the state comptroller’s office.
Jennifer Freeman, a spokesperson for Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, said in a statement “we stand ready to resume our oversight role.”
That order, in place since the first Omicron wave began last November, paved the way for the Hochul administration to buy $637 million in at-home COVID tests from a single vendor, who was also a campaign contributor, without competitive bidding in January, according to the Times Union.
The purchase has drawn significant criticism from her Republican foes, including Zeldin, who accused the governor of pay-to-play. (Hochul denies the campaign contributions had anything to do with the purchase.)
The second order, which has been in effect for nearly a year, expires Sept. 27. It was meant to deal with health care worker shortages, easing a number of licensing rules to allow out-of-state medical personnel to practice in New York. It also allows EMTs with paramedic training to administer COVID and flu vaccinations.
In August, Hochul cited EMT provision as the primary driver behind her decision to extend the orders. With the potential for a fall COVID wave, the governor said she didn’t want to hamstring the number of professions allowed to administer a COVID vaccine.
“I want to just give ourselves another month to assess whether or not we needed that extra ability to have additional people be able to give vaccines, and that is really primarily how we’re using it right now,” the governor said last month.
Bill Hammond, senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank in Albany, said he doesn’t see any justification for continuing the order relaxing purchasing rules at this stage in the pandemic.
Some people could interpret the ending of the emergency order as a sign the state isn’t taking COVID seriously anymore, Hammond said, but that wouldn’t be an accurate interpretation.
“This emergency [order] is just about purchasing rules,” he said. “It's not about how vigilant we are about a virus.”
As far as the second executive order regarding health care workers, Hammond said the worker shortage still exists, but that’s a sign of a larger issue that should be dealt with on a more-permanent basis.
“The shortage of health care workers is still with us,” he said. “I would argue that the fact that it's still with us almost a year later is a sign that it's not a short-term emergency, but it's a structural problem we need to deal with — and emergency measures aren't going to cut it.”