BETHLEHEM — Town Supervisor David VanLuven said COVID-19 will create challenges this summer. However, he noted many positive things happening in town during a special pandemic-related State of the Town Address on Thursday, May 21 at 7 p.m.
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Broadcast via Zoom, VanLuven said residents continuing to wear masks and maintain social distancing have helped to keep COVID-19 cases and deaths low in town. He said under 100 residents have been infected since the pandemic began and despite not able to say the number of deaths so far, he said it is “very low.” He added as of May 21, there were 13 cases of people in mandatory quarantine in town.
Wearing masks and social distancing “are simple and they are vital. They are inconvenient and we’re all thoroughly tired of them. … But we must be vigilant and we must keep our masks on and our distance from each other,” VanLuven said.
VanLuven said the Elm Avenue Park pool complex will be closed indefinitely for safety reasons although it may reopen if circumstances change and the state Department of Health offers guidance in the future. “People can’t swim in masks and we will not ask teenage lifeguards to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on someone with COVID-19,” he said. “This was a hard decision because we all love the pools but it is the right one for the safety of our residents and staff.”
All full-day summer camps provided by the Parks and Recreation Department are canceled too; besides safety, it is also because of “heat and dehydration if staff and kids are wearing masks outside for eight to nine hours on hot days,” he said. However, he said the department is “working hard to find other solutions for kids, such as half-day sessions for small groups with good social distancing.”
Regarding the town budget, VanLuven said he is working with town staff to “strategically cut spending by delaying hires for vacant positions, further reducing overtime and seasonal staff spending and adjusting constantly as new information comes in. I don’t anticipate having to furlough or lay off staff and we are working hard to avoid these drastic measures.”
He added that the town is tracking its expenses carefully and looking to get federal funding if available to help offset known and projected revenue losses.
He also said sales tax revenues — which help keep the town at receiving 11 cents of every property tax dollar — were strong in January and February but came in $150,000 below budget in March. If this trend persists this year, he said, “The town of Bethlehem could see a shortfall two to three times worse than during the Great Recession in 2009” which saw a sales tax revenue shortfall of $1.1 million.
He continued, “Through it all, we need to remember that COVID-19 is a setback, not the end, and I, the town board and our town staff are working strategically to continue delivering services that support our town while also limiting spending wherever possible.”
VanLuven encouraged residents to continue buying from local businesses as opposed to only shopping online, as well as support local businesses-centric campaigns like “Invest in Bethlehem.” That campaign aims to match up to $4,000 in donations to help the Bethlehem Chamber and Bethlehem Community Fund distribute to local businesses.
He expressed appreciation for how the community has adapted and come together for numerous causes and acts of kindness. Examples included residents enjoying neighborhood walks and the Albany County Rail Trail more; and Bethlehem Central High School seniors raising and donating $4,000 to the Bethlehem Chamber’s Business Hardship Fund and $6,000 to the South End Children’s Café in Albany.
“The Together, We Are One Bethlehem campaign has spread purple signs, shirts and tote bags throughout town as a powerful reminder that we’re a stronger community of neighbors who care and support each other,” he added.
While Town Hall remains closed to the public, VanLuven said the town government continues offering essential services like police on patrol, water delivery, sewage management, yard debris collection, site inspections and processing building permit applications. Town Clerk Nanci Moquin resumed issuing marriage licenses in the Town Hall parking lot since April 28. Senior Services social workers connected volunteers with isolated seniors to check on them and help with shopping or groceries errands.
VanLuven said the town anticipates to keep parks open, including tennis courts. A new 147-acre park called Normans Kill Ravines in Delmar and Elsmere is being planned by the town — around the same size as the Elm Avenue Park — and will include walking and biking trails. Henry Hudson Park is also being expanded with two properties totaling 21 acres but the pandemic is preventing town staff from closing on the land transaction.
He explained that the town can take steps to create or expand parks during the pandemic because the land purchases are paid for by the Parkland Set Aside Fund, which is already paid by developers and the funds are only for creating and improving parks.
“Thanks to all of you for being patient, being courteous and being good neighbors,” VanLuven concluded. “This is a terrible time but it’s reminding me yet again what a great town Bethlehem is and how lucky we are to live in this community.”