Shed more light on it

Public health officials in Jefferson County said they would no longer issue infection exposure warnings to residents.

To avoid having the state reimpose strict regulations on residents and businesses, Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chairman Scott A. Gray urged constituents to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus by adhering to safety protocols.

“We are seeing a spike right now. … We do not anticipate the trajectory of what we’re seeing changing in the near future,” Mr. Gray said in a story published Nov. 16 by the Watertown Daily Times. “When people are out in public, they’re often following all the necessary precautions; they’re at a heightened level of awareness. … But when they get to something that’s in their home or a friend’s home, all the precautions seem to go out the window. There’s no social distancing; there are no masks; and there’s been a substantial uptick traced to small gatherings.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo mandated restrictions in March to limit gatherings in public places. These rules had adverse effects on numerous people, businesses and organizations throughout the state.

An economic downturn resulted, but the rate of infection eventually came down. Mr. Cuomo began approaching lockdown measures on a regional basis. By examining which areas had more favorable statistics, he lifted some restrictions.

The north country was among the first regions to reopen, and this benefited the local economy. People here enjoyed more freedom in the summer and fall than they had in the spring.

But positive cases of infection have been rising in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties in recent weeks. This prompted Mr. Gray to encourage residents to recommit themselves to following guidelines developed by public health professionals. If the rate of infection continues to increase, the state may once again clamp down on the north country.

“We’re very vocal, and the fact of the matter is we can manage the virus and we can stay open. … It is critical that our businesses stay open. We will manage the virus. We’re asking the governor: Keep us open,” Mr. Gray said. “We think we can handle this, from a public health standpoint, manage the virus and allow businesses and schools to stay open. … But we need the public’s cooperation. It’s in the best interests of their friends and neighbors that they cooperate.”

We wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Gray’s sentiments. Residents must be responsible by following the safety rules at all times.

However, the county government is sending a mixed message when declaring it will no longer report where people may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Jefferson County Public Health Planner Stephen A. Jennings said concealing this information could motivate people’s behavior for the better.

“The disease is everywhere. … It doesn’t matter where you go,” he said in a story published Tuesday in the Watertown Daily Times. “It’s not information that is useful for people. … Whenever you go out, you are at risk. That is our message.”

If every public site is equally hazardous, why keep any of them open? Wouldn’t it make more sense to close every business to reduce the chances that people will become infected?

This is obviously not what county officials want. In fact, they need to ensure local companies continue to operate to keep residents employed and maintain a flow of taxes. There’s nothing sinister about this; it’s how our society works.

But balancing the need to keep the economy moving forward and minimize the risks to public health isn’t easy. The key is encouraging people to act wisely when it comes to interacting with others.

Well-informed constituents make better decisions. The reality is that some regions of the county have higher infection rates than others. If residents must choose one over the other to conduct some business, how is it not helpful for them to know where a greater degree of exposure has been reported?

If an exposure occurred inside a large store or shopping mall, how can people decide if they should get tested if they don’t know they were there at that time? Isn’t this depriving them of vital information they need to make a smart choice?

The St. Lawrence Public Health Department also announced it no longer would issue exposure warnings. This has become a disturbing trend.

We don’t intend to belittle the work done by health officials. They’ve conducted themselves in an extraordinary fashion under very difficult circumstances. We know they are striving to save lives.

But the coronavirus pandemic is the most serious public health crisis most of us have confronted in our lifetimes. Revealing incidents of exposure in public settings is definitely in the public interest.

Withholding this information may have the opposite effect of what authorities desire. With no more warnings detailing where incidents have been reported, less responsible people may conclude that every public place is equally safe.

It’s crucial for local governments to be as transparent as possible in dealing with this pandemic; there’s enough suspicion among some people about the motives of officials in taking certain measures to thwart the spread of infection. Proclaiming that they’re intentionally keeping some information under wraps will only intensify beliefs that they’re hiding something, as unfounded as such opinions are. We need all relevant facts about what’s going on and where it’s occurring; public health officials should be as honest with us as possible.

In advocating for a more open government to improve society, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said sunlight is the best disinfectant. If we ever needed a strong disinfectant, it’s now.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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