In a conference call Monday morning with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul offered additional details on what phase one of “New York Forward” entails. She is head of the “control room” monitoring when Western New York can begin to exit Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “New York State on PAUSE” shutdown.
Cuomo presented seven metrics a region needs to meet to reopen, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. As of Sunday, Western New York met six out of seven, just needing an additional 352 people to serve as contact tracers.
Hochul said, “We are in a very good place. What it requires is simply a four-hour training course. We went after all five counties, asked them to identify current government workers; it doesn't have to be in the public health realm – social services, law enforcement, building inspectors – anybody who will do this. And we now are approaching those numbers, and I'm feeling really good about where we are today. Very good.”
“New York Forward” states, “The CDC and WHO also recommend that robust contact tracing programs be in place before local governments consider easing restrictions. Contact tracing helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 by rapidly interviewing positive patients; identifying their close contacts; interviewing and alerting those contacts to the risk of infection; and instructing those contacts to quarantine or isolate for 14 days, to be sure they don’t spread COVID-19 to others.”
Safety Practices in Businesses
Niagara River Region Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Pauly asked about safety guidelines within businesses. She said DiCamillo Bakery in Lewiston has been “great about making sure that signage was out there for their employees, as well as for customers coming in” regarding store policy.
Hochul said, “We have been using our public platform every chance we get to talk about how important it is (to social distance and wear a mask), but this is going to be reinforced by the employers and by individuals who want to go into your establishment.
“And I talked about what I saw at DiCamillo’s all over the state; when I'm on calls I said, ‘I saw them do it right. They had a sign up front that said three people only in the store at a time. We stood outside and waited our turn. We were socially distanced while we were waiting. I waited in the car; my husband waited in line.
“And just even a sign that says, 'No mask, no service,’ that is a prerogative of an employer to protect your worksite, because you do not want to be that business that has an outbreak. It'll hit your reputation; people will be afraid to go there going forward.
“So, it's protecting your employees, about protecting the public, but also all the hard work you did to build a reputation in a community; and you don't want it to go out the window, because people became obstinate or a little more aggressive about this.
“You have a right to ask that they be masked when someone walks into your establishment. And I think that's an important protocol that probably is going to last through a good part of the summer, to be honest with you, as we start getting into the other phases – because at any point, if we start slipping in the metrics and how we're doing with respect to the rate of infection, we're going to have to stay in that phase and not get to the next one.
“And we really want to get to each phase in a systemic manner every two weeks. We have the opportunity, but that all comes down to whether or not the public and employees and others are being really smart about these protocols.”
A common concern among small-business owners is that employees, who are making more money on unemployment than they would be working 9 to 5, are hesitant to return to their jobs.
Hochul said, “You need to remind yourself that the system is set up that, if you offer a job to someone, they have to come back – or they lose their unemployment insurance. And I know everyone says, ‘Well, people abuse the system.’ The commissioner of labor says let us know if there's any violations; document the offer you extended them to come back. And they have to certify by Saturday every week that they are continuing to look for work, and they've not been offered a job. So, that's your protection in that system.”
In terms of the federal Paycheck Protection Program grants, she said, “If you're going to take advantage of this program – and people don't have to – but, if you want to take advantage of it, that is to keep people employed, so they're not having to go and get unemployment. And you can find creative ways to keep them working, in that sense (including remotely), to meet the qualifications, so you don't have to forgo that.”
In Cuomo’s March 20 executive order, he said:
•Nonessential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason (e.g. parties, celebrations or other social events) are canceled or postponed at this time.
•Any concentration of individuals outside their home must be limited to workers providing essential services and social distancing should be practiced.
Hochul said, “Those restrictions stay in place.”
She explained, “Phase one is simply people being able to go back to construction, manufacturing, and the limited retail we've been talking about. …
“But also there's some statewide restrictions that have been lifted. For example, outdoor activities, realizing that people are safe as long as they socially distance, whether it's the beaches, the golf courses, the boating. The Erie Canal is opening up by July 4, which is really important to our canal communities.
“But no, we have not lifted any restrictions on these gatherings, because that's how it spreads. And to remind everybody: The virus has not gone away. We still have almost 5,000 cases in the five counties of Western New York. We have pockets where it's starting to spike. But the question is can we manage it in our hospital system. We'll be closely watching the hospitalization rates.
“And so, if we continue social distancing and stop the spread, we're going to be OK. if people start saying, ‘Phase one, it must be OK now,’ we're gonna have to stop it again. No one wants to.
“I'm a former small business person; with my mother helped start a little retail shop that has been closed. This is painful – I understand that – but we're not going to do something that reverses all the sacrifice and what we've had to go through, because people are just going to start saying, ‘Well, I've waited long enough.’ No; you haven't.
“This virus controls us; we don't control the virus right now. And that is a lesson that is going to have to be reinforced by everyone throughout the summer – and pray that it doesn't come back in the fall, as is predicted.”
In an email Monday, Empire State Development wrote, “Per Executive Order 202.31, the mass gatherings provision for NYS on Pause was extended through May 28. The restrictions are therefore still in place.”