Pandemic Powers Should Be Ended, Not Extended

This post was updated on March 8, 2021.

So far this year, there has been much speculation and discussion in Albany about curtailing the emergency powers that were granted to Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, the Legislature passed Chapter 23 of the Laws of 2020, a law expanding the Governor’s existing authority to suspend statutes, rules, and ordinances during disasters. Chapter 23 covered “impending or urgent” threats and also “disease outbreaks,” not just epidemics. It also empowered the Governor to issue directives and executive orders addressing such emergencies. Portions of the law were scheduled to expire on April 30, 2021. Since the passage of this law, Gov. Cuomo has issued dozens of executive orders regulating many areas of New Yorkers’ lives in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

On March 2, 2021, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) introduced Bill S.5357-Stewart-Cousins/A.5967-Heastie. While this bill was presented as a measure to strip the Governor’s pandemic powers, it actually does very little to limit those powers. Any one of several other pending bills would have been much more effective in curtailing Gov. Cuomo’s one-man rule of the Empire State during the pandemic. (New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms issued a memorandum in support of one of those bills, Bill S.4888-Biaggi).

Despite opposition from Republican legislative leaders and from New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, Bill S.5357-Stewart-Cousins/A.5967-Heastie passed both houses of the State Legislature on March 5, 2021 and was later signed into law by Gov. Cuomo.

The new law revokes the Governor’s authority to issue emergency directives and orders regarding the pandemic. However, it leaves all of the Governor’s existing COVID-19 directives and orders in place for 30 days. It also empowers the Governor to modify or extend those existing orders in 30-day increments, so long as he provides legislative leaders and applicable legislative committee chairs with five days’ notice and an explanation. The law also removes the April 30, 2021 end date on the Governor’s emergency powers.

The point of rescinding the Governor’s emergency powers is to restore the Legislature’s authority and return the state to a normal model of governance. By allowing the Governor to repeatedly extend and modify his existing COVID-19 directives and orders, the new law defeats its own ostensible purpose. Republicans in both houses are infuriated; Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt (R-North Tonawanda) and Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski) have described the law as a “bogus backroom deal.” New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms agrees.