Interviews & Profiles

Serving constituents during the coronavirus outbreak

There is lots to do, from making phone calls to protecting consumers to passing legislation.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie

State Senator Zellnor Myrie NY Senate Photo

Constituent service is a relatively unsexy aspect of being a state lawmaker. There are no big speeches in support of legislation with your name on it. Instead, you are working behind the scenes figuring out how to use what leverage you have for the benefit of someone who’s simply in need. There are a lot more of those types of people as a result of the coronavirus epidemic, especially at its epicenter in New York City.

Infections are spreading. Hospitals are running out of supplies. People are dying. Employers and employees alike are facing tough times. This is especially true in Central Brooklyn, where there are now more than 3,000 confirmed cases. Elected officials are scrambling to figure out what they can do to help address their part of a crisis that has now reached nearly every area of the state. 

City & State spoke with state Sen. Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn on Monday to hear how elected officials are helping the health care system cope with an inflow of cases, ongoing legislative efforts and how this all ties into the state budget process. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So how does a state lawmaker get involved in responding to the pandemic when you are outside the state Capitol?

Under normal circumstances, I am shaking many hands a day, I'm having many in-person meetings, I've gone to many in-person events, with crowds of all sizes. That is the normal course of business for me. That, of course, has ceased, and we haven't been able to do that. And so my job has shifted to making many more phone calls – I say that as a person who is not a phone person – Zoom conferences, and emails. I've been on the phone with folks in the mayor's office and the governor's office and talking to my senior centers, talking to the major facilities. We've been in contact with the district attorney's office and police precincts. I went on a radio station that mostly serves Caribbean folks in my district to explain what has been going on and what the government is doing to try to help. 

What about on the economic side for constituents?

I think there are still some things that we can think through as we go through through this crisis. I think now there's a really strong case for us to say that internet providers are in fact utilities, and they should be governed as such. That is one thing that we can look to try to put into our statutes. Students are at home now because school is closed. Remote learning is only possible if you have access to the internet. And we know that there is a digital divide amongst some of our poor friends and neighbors.

Once a 90-day moratorium on evictions and foreclosures expires, there’s going to be a serious effort from debt collectors. From property owners, from utility companies to collect what they cannot have collected during the crisis. And while I think people should get what they are owed, these sorts of situations always lend themselves to predatory actions. There are explicit things that we can do in the space of debt collection that will allow folks to not be immediately devastated by some of these attempts to collect.

You are the chair of the state Senate Elections Committee. What else needs to be done to ensure people can vote safely in the upcoming months?

To the extent that we can move to a no-excuse absentee system, that's really helpful. The problem that we face is that the New York state Constitution doesn't allow us to do that statutorily. We have to amend the Constitution in the process. So we are midway through that process right now. (Per the state Constitution, lawmakers have to pass the amendment once more in 2020 before it could go on the ballot in 2021.) We also have to consider preparations for these elections.

It takes a lot for that to happen in every poll site, in every county throughout the state of New York. A good number of board of elections workers are in the vulnerable population. We have to think about how we protect them as well and how we give the boards enough time to prepare, given that there will be reduced working staffs.