It goes without saying that the coronavirus pandemic has completely changed our way of life. Daily routines, long-and short-term plans, and our priorities have been upended, and the challenges to our person- al and professional lives keep on coming.
For me, between moments of strength and stress have also come moments of marvel—at the ability of health care workers to operate beyond their strength, at the unshakable will of our community, at the generosity of our neighbors, at the resilience of children, and at how critical technology has been.
Where would we be without video chats to keep in touch with isolated family members? Video conferencing and email to keep our businesses running? Social media and online news to learn of lifesaving information and critical updates? Streaming services are keeping us occupied. Public libraries are offering online program- ming. Our Easter and Passover holy days, although vastly different this year, were still observed with livestreams of services and virtual family “gatherings.” Apps are helping us order food from restaurants and grocery stores. Educators are relying on digital platforms to keep in touch with students and accept assignments. One Facebook post can spread news and hope to a thousand users.
The technologies of our era were not available during the 1918 influenza pandemic, described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the most severe pandemic in recent history. The newspapers were the ones relied upon to get the word out and urge people not to gather in large groups. Important essential workers at that time included telephone operators who helped connect callers with family, friends, businesses, and others. Those operating the switchboards were, like everyone else, subject to infection and had skills that made them difficult to replace quickly, leading to a plea to New Yorkers to restrict their telephone use to only necessary calls so the reduced staff could handle the volume.
We have come a long way, and today we find ourselves thrust into a reliance on technology that is truly astonishing. In government, we are depending on technology just as much as businesses, schools, and the folks at home. Even in an emergency—perhaps especially in an emergency— government continues to serve its people, but this pandemic has challenged how we traditionally function. We are operating in unprecedented times, and that calls for unprecedented actions.
The biggest change for the Suffolk County Legislature will come on April 28 when we hold our next General Meeting, at which legislators discuss and vote on legislation and hold public hearings. Critical to the decisions we make at these meetings is input from the public—a challenge at the moment, given that our legislative building is closed to comply with social distancing rules and help stop the spread of the virus.
Providing the public with a means for meaningful participation in the legislative process at this time is deeply important to me. We have livestreamed our meetings for years, but members of the public had to appear in person or submit testimony in writing in order to get on the record about an issue. But for the April 28 General Meeting, we are innovating public participation in a big way.
For the first time ever, the public will be able to testify at public hearings from home by using the video conferencing software Zoom. Speakers will get the same three minutes to address legislators as they would get if they were there in person. The process for participating will be outlined on our website, www.scnylegislature.us, but in essence those wishing to speak will need to fill out a form in advance and send it to our clerk’s office. They will then receive information on how to participate in the public hearing through Zoom.
Additionally, we are introducing a public testimony voicemail option. Callers may dial (631) 853-3685 and record up to three minutes of testimony, which will be preserved and added to the record. As always, we will also be accepting written testimony. Public comments may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to the attention of the Clerk’s Office at the Suffolk County Legislature, William H. Rogers Building, 725 Veterans Memorial Highway, Smithtown, NY 11787.
And remember, your participation in the legislative process is not limited to lending your voice to an issue. You can also participate by staying informed. I welcome you to watch livestreams of our committee meetings being held next week as well as the April 28 General Meeting through our website.
I am excited about these new ways for the public to participate remotely as we all do what we can to keep each other safe. Every passing hour that we all do our part will bring us closer to easier days.