ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — As New York City confirms more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, bucolic Essex County four hours north tallied its 32nd case since the outbreak. But the mountainous corner of upstate New York is under the same statewide lockdown rules as the pandemic-besieged city.
That could soon change.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday gave the green light to several regions of the state not as severely affected by the outbreak to gradually re-start their economies once the latest stay-at-home order expires Friday.
The Southern Tier, Mohawk Valley and the Finger Lakes have met all seven benchmarks for opening some business activity and need to work out some logistical details by the end of the week, Cuomo said. The North Country, which includes Essex County, is close behind.
Gears have been turning around upstate New York in anticipation of regional re-openings, especially since Cuomo provided a blueprint a week ago. County governments have been reassigning employees to new jobs retracing the steps of infected people. Businesses have been stocking up on hand sanitizer, reconfiguring office seating and planning to bring back furloughed employees.
“The environment in New York City is wildly different from this part of the state,” said Mimi Lane, a cafe owner and president of a manufacturing company in Willsboro, a small Essex County community on Lake Champlain. “The initial response, while tough, was probably a good choice. But in terms of looking at how long we stay this way, watching the numbers in a regional sampling makes sense.”
Though the lockdown was enacted statewide March 22, Cuomo has divided the state into 10 regions that will move at different times to reopen. New York’s regional re-openings would follow other states that have already relaxed restrictions.
No region can open until it meets seven conditions. COVID-19-related deaths and hospitalizations must be low or trending down and there must be enough hospital beds to meet a surge. Counties must beef up testing and contact tracing. And the governor said employers will need to protect workers, meaning they may need to require masks or adjust workplace hours.
Even if a region meets all benchmarks, different types of businesses will open in phases over weeks. The first of four phases will include construction, manufacturing, retail with curb-side pickup, agriculture, forestry and fishing. Effects of the re-openings need to be evaluated before a region can move on to new phases.
“It is going to be more complex getting out than it was getting in,” Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro said recently.
Counties already employ disease tracers, but they are scrambling to meet the ambitious requirements in the re-opening plans: at least 30 tracers for every 100,000 residents.
Stephen Acquario of the New York Association of Counties believes the majority of new tracers will be contracted through the state. Weeks after Cuomo announced plans to muster an “army” of tracers, the state is already seeking candidates with their own phone, computer and internet connection who can “show empathy to distressed individuals.”
In Buffalo and elsewhere, counties will also re-assign workers to beef up their tracing ranks quickly. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz noted Monday that the western New York region is only falling short on two benchmarks requiring two-week declines in hospitalizations and deaths.
“We are all in this together! We can do this WNY!” Poloncarz tweeted.
Testing is the only remaining hurdle in the North Country region, which includes the Adirondacks. The governor is requiring the ability to do 30 coronavirus tests per 1,000 residents monthly.
“For our county, that means we’d have to do about 1,200 tests monthly,” said Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland.
Businesses are preparing for restarts on a parallel track, but there are still questions over exactly how it will work. Idled construction foreman Robert Hoffman wonders how businesses will maintain social distancing on commercial job sites with hundreds of people.
“I’m looking forward to get back to work. I’m just deeply concerned about the fact of how safe we’re really going to be,” said Hoffman, who lives in the Albany area. “You know, in construction, you work hand-in-hand with other people all the time in close proximity.”
Hoffman doesn’t want to bring the virus home to his two teenage children.
In the Binghamton area, Kevin Blake of ICS Solutions Group has already mapped out how to start slowly returning some of his 90 employees back into three upstate offices after doing business remotely. The technology management company is providing face masks and gloves and will space out work stations. After calculating how much hand sanitizer his staff would need, he headed to a local distillery.
“It’s been no small feat of planning, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “Who’s going to come back in? And if they do, where will they sit where there is nobody else around them?”
Cuomo also is requiring each region of the state to have a multi-county “control room” to make sure the re-openings do not result in a surge of new cases.
“If it does not go well and you see that infection rate moving … you have to be able to pull the plug,” Cuomo said at his briefing, “or slow down the increase in activity, and that’s what we call the circuit breaker.”
One last part of re-opening might be the trickiest: Making sure customers feel comfortable enough to come back. North Country businesses in particular are heavily dependent on tourism, with Adirondack ski centers, Lake Placid’s Olympic sports facilities, a vast network of mountain trails and plentiful lakes.
“The fear is, after we open up, if COVID is still part of everybody’s life, we have to re-market that this area is still a great place to come,” Gillilland said. “We’re going to have to reengineer hotels, restaurants, even ski areas. That’s our challenge right now.”
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Featured image: In this Oct. 18, 2013, file photo, Randy Thurston, of San Jose, Calif., takes in the fall foliage and the view of the Mohawk Valley while hiking with family and friends along the Indian Ladder Trail at Thacher State Park in Voorheesville, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday, May 11, 2020, gave the green light to several regions of the state not as severely affected by the outbreak to gradually re-start their economies once the latest stay-at-home order expires Friday. The Southern Tier, Mohawk Valley and the Finger Lakes have met all seven benchmarks for opening some business activity and need to work out some logistical details by the end of the week, Cuomo said. The North Country, which includes Essex County, is close behind. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)