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‘We weren’t prepared at all,’ Brooks says of virus

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As more Seaford and Wantagh businesses open under the guidelines for Phase II, one nagging question remains unanswered: How safe are we, really?

In a conversation with the Herald last week, Seaford Democratic State Sen. John Brooks spoke to the issue, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement and the ensuing protests; school taxes; and what the near term might hold for the residents of his district.

“What do we know about the virus now that we didn’t know in March? Nothing,” Brooks said flatly. “What do we know about how to treat it that we didn’t know then? Nothing.”

The lack of new information on Covid-19 was an obvious concern to Brooks, as New York joins other states in reopening its economic and social life. “I understand people’s frustration,” he said. “But in those states where they’ve reopened too quickly, we’ve seen significant spikes in new cases.”

Arizona, for example, logged more than 10,000 new cases in the week ending last Sunday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Georgia, the figure was close to 6,200 new cases. Florida had 11,600 for the week.

Even California, whose handling of the virus has been among the most stringent and conservative, logged more than 22,000 new positives that same week, as the state began to reopen.

Seaford and Wantagh recorded no new cases in the week ended June 12, but that was no reason for complacency, Brooks cautioned. “We’re still learning about this,” he said. “And we’re having to make decisions and plans in the middle of this, even though we still don’t know anything.

“The biggest take-away from this is that we weren’t prepared at all,” he added, despite experts’ repeated warnings for several years that a pandemic of some kind was likely, given the increasing mobility of the world’s population. “And not just from a medical perspective. We weren’t prepared to provide even a basic level of security for our citizens,” he said.

“Look, when we had 9/11 or [Hurricane] Sandy, the federal government stepped in and took the lead in helping us recover from those disasters,” Brooks said. “Now the federal government is telling the states, ‘You’re on your own; it’s not our responsibility.’”

In the short term, he said, “Schools are still the big question.” Local schools chiefs Dr. Adele Pecora, in Seaford, and John McNamara, in Wantagh, have said they expect the state to cut the foundation aid they receive as it digs deep to pay unemployment benefits and increased health care costs.

“We’re looking at a cut of at least 10 percent,” McNamara told the Herald earlier this month.

Brooks, a former Seaford Board of Education trustee, acknowledged the difficulty of preparing balanced budgets in the face of potentially large losses of revenue after the school year has begun. And the extent to which districts like Seaford and Wantagh depend on property taxes for revenue was an issue before the coronavirus pandemic began. “I’d still like to see schools’ dependence on those taxes capped at 50 percent,” he said, while acknowledging that the current focus on the virus and civil rights issues made it an unlikely topic of debate anytime soon.

 Black Lives Matter

Brooks was one of 40 senators who voted in favor of legislation repealing Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. The bill, signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week, includes provisions outlawing the use of chokeholds; criminalizing race-based false 911 calls; and appointing the state attorney general the de facto special prosecutor in all cases in New York in which unarmed civilians are killed by police.

Among its more hotly debated provisions, the bill also makes public any records of confirmed police misconduct — records that were protected by 50-a until last week. “It was an unbelievably emotional debate,” Brooks said.

Speaking of the protests that have taken place almost daily in South Shore communities, he recalled the civil rights marches of the 1960s. “I graduated from high school in 1968,” he said. “That was the year that Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated within [two months] of each other. There’s been some progress; of course there has. But then something like this happens.”

Brooks said some of his constituents called to complain about riots in Merrick. “I said, ‘what riots?’ What I saw were peaceful demonstrations with a handful of the kind of incidents you get in any large crowd of people. I didn’t see anything like a riot. All I saw was a few hecklers, and the [Nassau County police] commissioner down there in the middle of a peaceful march.”