Coronavirus in New York: What a slow reopening of businesses might look like
ALBANY - Floyd Rayburn says he has a backlog of work at his upstate New York masonry business that could probably last him two years.
The Canandaigua-based company with about 30 employees outside Rochester has been shuttered along with all other non-essential businesses in New York since March 22 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
So he's eager to reopen.
"I have work for everybody," he said. "We have to open up."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo in recent days has talked about a regional approach to reopening businesses in New York as a way to slowly bring back the state's economy.
Any plan would likely start with parts of upstate New York that have had the fewest coronavirus cases and deaths. More than 90% of the deaths, hospitalizations and cases have been in New York City and its suburbs.
"We operate as one state, but we also have to understand variations," Cuomo said Tuesday in Buffalo.
"You do want to get this economy open as soon as possible. And if a situation is radically different in one part of the state than another part of the state, take that into consideration."
Non-essential businesses and schools in New York are closed through May 15, but Cuomo and regional leaders have talked about moving soon after to at least ease of the restrictions in parts of the state.
"State and local leaders have taken strong steps to stop the spread of the virus — reducing the health impact," said Michael Kracker, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, a business group.
"The economic impact, however, has taken an extraordinary toll on an already struggling upstate economy."
How would parts of the state's economy reopen?
Cuomo has long warned about a patchwork approach to reopening parts of the state's economy, saying any plans need to be coordinated statewide and ideally with neighboring states.
If New Jersey closes its beaches, then sun seekers will simply head to Long Island beaches. If New York keeps its casinos closed, but Connecticut reopens theirs, then gamblers will head across the border.
A similar scenario could play out within the state's borders.
If upstate resort towns are allowed to reopen, they could be overwhelmed with New York City residents looking for a reprieve — and doing so could open the state to a new round of coronavirus spread.
Cuomo said Tuesday night he is concerned that reopening parts of upstate could shift the virus' spread, saying leaders need to "as smart as we can" as they develop an economic plan.
New York has 10 economic regions, and each region might look at its own strategy to let certain businesses reopen, officials said.
For example, Cuomo on Tuesday announced elective surgeries would be now be allowed in most counties outside the New York metropolitan area, excluding Clinton, Yates, Schuyler, Erie and Rensselaer,
New York still leads the nation by far in deaths and positive COVID-19 cases, but it has started to flatten the curve of the virus' spread.
Cuomo said the goal now is not to reopen too quickly and have the trajectory shoot back up. That will also come with additional testing, which is another immediate goal of the state.
"Do no harm. Don't go backwards," he said Tuesday. "That's the first point and then plan the reopening."
New York City, meanwhile, and its suburbs could still be months away from a reopening plan.
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday said a key to reopening businesses might be requiring workplace temperature checks
"They've been an important tool in other countries that have had some of the better experiences containing the coronavirus and working their way back,," he said.
One problem, he said: There are not enough thermometers available to restart a city of more than 8 million people.
"What you want as you come back is the ability to constantly monitor for who might be sick and then get them to quarantine or isolation," de Blasio said.
On Monday, Cuomo announced a "Reimagine New York" task force of the downstate county leaders to rebuild the area's economy.
“Reopening the economy, consistent with a science based strategy to reduce the spread of the virus, is a priority of all of us," said Westchester County Executive George Latimer, who is on the panel.
What could reopen in New York?
While some states, like Georgia, are planning to reopen hair salons, bowling alleys and gyms, New York will likely take a slower approach.
Schools are also closed through May 15, and Cuomo has talked little about any immediate plans to reopen them before September.
"If we make a decision to reopen schools, we would then need a whole plan on how to reopen a school — with the right public health standards, with disinfecting, with all the precautions, which is a major, major undertaking," the governor continued.
"So we’re not there yet."
Cuomo on Tuesday tapped Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and former Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy to head the western New York and Finger Lakes plans to restarting the local economies.
Duffy, now president of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, said there may be types of construction that could resume soon, so long as social distancing and other safety precautions can be maintained.
Balancing the health of New Yorkers with ramping up the economy will be reconciled "with data and information," Duffy said.
"And we all have to recognize that we’re in a whole different landscape. It’s about what we can do safely and how we can protect people," he said.
Perhaps starting by opening industries that have limited direct contact with the public could be the right approach, said Stacey Duncan, who heads the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce.
That could include construction, general contracting and professional services that can do their business electronically.
"We’ve heard from a lot of small contractors that have exterior projects that they could begin that would not put them in contact with the public a great deal," she said.
As for opening restaurants, salons and the tourism industry as summer approaches, Duncan expects there will be limited capacity if they start to reopen upstate.
"I think there needs to be prolonged social distancing and enhanced restrictions to keep us all safe," she said in an email.
"We have to temper our expectations too. Our economic recovery will be slow, but if we do things responsibly, recovery will be there."
When might a NY reopening start?
Cuomo said it's too soon to know when he might begin to lift some of the restrictions on businesses.
Last weekend, for example, his administration sought to find a middle ground with golf courses: They could open, but with no carts and no administrative staffs.
Jeff Gural, owner of the Tioga Downs casino in the Southern Tier and the Vernon Downs racetrack with video lottery terminals near Syracuse, envisions the state starting a reopening plan in low density areas that are not likely to attract big crowds from other parts of the state or Northeast.
He said he think he could reopen his casinos, located in rural areas, through use of social distancing and limited attendance. He has considered giving all his workers COVID-19 tests before reopening.
"Common sense would tell you that you would look to open areas of the state that are more rural and have fewer cases and fewer fatalities," Gural said.
Upstate Republicans are pressing the Democratic governor to soon start loosening the reins on the private economy as millions are unemployed.
Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, has encouraged the state to work with health professionals on a plan that could maintain public health, but also allow companies to reopen.
“We understand the situation downstate is dire, but the governor can't just ignore the economic and geographic realities of the rest of the state," Reed said in a statement.
Assembly Republicans on Monday proposed a panel of experts should come up with an upstate reopening plan, one that would allow for gatherings with a limited capacity based on an area's rates of infection, population density and risk levels.
“We have counties with fewer than 10 positive cases of COVID-19 that are under the same restrictions as counties with more than 30,000,” Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, Oswego County, said in a statement.
"It’s time to develop a plan that’s more than a statewide order and starts to get communities up and running again.”
Joseph Spector is the New York state editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany
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This article originally appeared on New York State Team: Coronavirus in New York: What a slow reopening of businesses might look like