By Joshua Maloni
Niagara County Legislature Chairwoman Becky Wydysh provided her weekly update Monday on LCTV. She was joined by Public Health Director Daniel Stapleton. Among their topics of conversation:
Crackdown on Business, Eateries Not Utilizing Safety Protocols
Since the middle of March, New York state and local government officials have been suggesting, urging and telling locally owned businesses to follow safety protocols related to the coronavirus. Those that still refuse to enforce (or follow) the 6 feet of social distance/wear a mask/clean your hands regulations are subject to penalties.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently compiled a multiagency task force to combat violations of COVID-19-related regulations at bars and restaurants. The State Liquor Authority and New York State Police task force issued 105 violations to establishments downstate on Friday and Saturday.
“Gov. Cuomo seems determined to not let (positive case spikes) happen here, and really has been demanding an increase in the enforcement of the guidelines here by local government,” Wydysh said. “That enforcement can involve state agencies like the State Department of Health, and the State Liquor Authority, or our local government, like (the Health) Department and our local police departments and the sheriff.”
Stapleton said, “Enforcement is a big issue. We’re getting calls around the clock, seven days a week, complaints about businesses not following the rules; people not wearing masks.
“For example, a local restaurant that we're dealing with right now, we're working with them. We're working to make sure that businesses understand what the rules are, but then we also need to make sure that they comply with those rules. So, if their staff, for example, aren't wearing masks, that's a big issue. We will work with them to educate them, but we'll only do that once or twice. After that, we come in for a hearing, and we'll have a penalty if they can't comply.
“We don't want people putting their business at risk by not following the rules. And I think most people follow the rules, but we believe a big part of what we do is educating people, helping them protect their customers. That's really what it's all about. And for the most part, people know the rules and they follow them. But there are some businesses we continue to work with and that's taking a lot of our time.”
Wydysh said, “I think it's important to remind residents, again, those mask guidelines for being out in public and having your mask on are still in place by the state, and very important if you want to be able to go to the businesses that you like. You know, it's not just about keeping yourself healthy, keeping others around you healthy, but really helping those businesses to follow those guidelines.
“If there's a restaurant that you love to go to, you want them to be able to stay open – and they're trying to keep you safe, just like you're trying to keep everyone else safe. So again, I remind you, please, if you are out and about and you want to be at those businesses that you enjoy, do your part; and have your mask on; and follow the rules in the business. They’ve been put in place for your safety, and you want to help them stay open.”
•The updated list of bars and restaurants facing SLA charges or summary liquor license suspensions can be found HERE.
The state coronavirus infection rate has declined since Cuomo began his “New York Forward” reopening process in May – even with myriad establishments not conforming to safety protocols. This has led some to question why bars can’t reopen.
Cuomo addressed that point on Wednesday.
“We have rules on our reopening – and we enforced the rules on our reopening. If you didn’t have rules on the reopening, we would be called Florida, Texas, Arizona and the 34 other states that are now seeing increases,” he said. “The rules on the reopening is what keep the infection rate down. We’re enforcing the rules, because without the rules the infection rate will go up.”
Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa added, “When people are drinking, then they let their guard down; they aren’t as cognizant of social distancing. You get closer. And that’s what you’re seeing with these big clumps of people. We can’t stick our head in the sand and ignore the lessons from around the country that we’re seeing that’s causing these … infection spikes to go up.”
NYS Travel Advisory
Cuomo has a travel advisory in place, wherein residents must quarantine if spending more than 24 hours in a state with positive test cases in excess of 10%, or the number of positive cases exceeding 10 per 100,000 residents, over a seven-day rolling average. Currently, 31 states are on that list.
Stapleton said, “We're getting a lot of calls. A lot of concerns that people have about people they know, people they see that they know went out of the area and came back and aren’t quarantining.”
He called it a “risk” for people to visit these locations.
“You take a risk of having to be out of work for 14 days; needing to stay home,” Stapleton said. “We know that some people have gone away, and that state is added to the list on the day when they're there. And that's unfortunate, but people need to really take this serious and make sure they understand what the ramifications are, the risks involved.
“The No. 1 thing is we don't want anybody going to a state that has a high level of infection and bringing that back to Niagara County. That hurts our business. It hurts our residents. And that's something we want to make sure people understand. There are consequences to the decisions you make, and some of them are very serious; so, really think twice before you do traveling outside of our area.
“Niagara County is beautiful this time of year. Stay local, try to encourage people to support the businesses that are here, and stay put, because you're putting yourself at risk if you decide to go and then that state is listed on the quarantine.”
Wydysh said, “I think people were confused about the fact that, if they left to go on their vacation, and that state was not included yet, if you are gone on your vacation and that state gets added, you are going to have to quarantine when you come back. So, very important to maybe look ahead if you're making that decision about whether or not to travel. See where that status falling in the numbers and if it looks like there's a chance that could happen while you're gone; because it will apply to you even if you left before that state was on the left.”
Reopening of Schools
Cuomo and his team of state and international health experts will evaluate school reopening plans next week. The governor said phase four regions can allow in-person teaching if the daily infection rate remains below 5% or lower using a 14-day average since “New York State on PAUSE” was lifted.
Wydysh told Stapleton, “You've said the way the numbers look right now we stand a very good chance of heading towards some form of opening in the fall.”
He explained, “I've met with all the superintendents. I talk with them on a weekly basis. … We're providing guidance to those superintendents.
“We know that most of the schools are going to try and open, but their No. 1 priority – and our priority – is to make sure it's done safely. So, will that mean a hybrid, where half of the week is spent online, the other half is in person? Will it mean that some children just won't be able to go to school like they normally do? That's probably a good possibility.
“We do know it's not going to be like it ever used to be. Each school is a little different. Some have space to do this, some don't. Some have a really vigilant program to do things online, and some don't. So, they all have to get up to that same standard to be able to provide a consistent, quality education. And at the same time, No. 1, make sure, not only for the students, but also for the staff there, for the bus drivers, for the school bus aides, for all those people, the vendors, people who transport children, and who teach children and make sure children are safe, all of them are working together.
“We do know that the Academy of Pediatrics has said that, for children, it's more important for them to be in school, than to be out. The risk is higher for them to completely stay at home for all their schooling, rather than to be at school at least some part of the week.
“So, it's really a hybrid; it's really trying to maneuver all those moving pieces. But I know right now the school districts are under the gun to make sure this happens quickly. Next week, the governor's office will be reviewing all those plans and deciding if their plan meets the criteria that they need.
“We'll continue to work with them on a regular basis for guidance and make sure that everyone's efforts in making sure kids can go to school safely, that all those efforts come together to make sure that not only is it a high-quality education, but it's also safe.”
Trusted Traveler Program and Sales Tax
Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced a reinstatement of the Trusted Traveler Program in New York.
Wydysh said she is “very happy to see that the Trusted Traveler Programs such as Nexus and Global Entry are now again available to New York residents.
“As you may recall, the federal government had taken away our state's participation in those programs over a dispute on the state's ‘Green Light Law.’ When the borders do finally reopen, this is going to be a very important piece to our cross-border commerce – and we need to do everything we can, of course, to get our economy moving again once that happens. So, glad to hear that we'll be able to apply for those again, get those renewed, and use them like we were in the past.
“Related to that, I know it's not surprising to hear that Niagara County revenues have taken a major hit during the pandemic. Much like any other business or household, the county has suffered, as well, financially. But this week we learned that our sales tax revenue for the month of June was actually up slightly over last year's number, which is good. We are not sure if this is a temporary blip, or the start of a trend.
“Of course we're optimistic, but we know that online sales have changed significantly; we've had businesses that have been closed that are now reopening. So, of course, we anxiously await that sales tax news to see where we're heading from here.
“Despite the good news in June, overall sales tax revenue for the county is down 3% year to date, so down slightly. We're hoping that that increases again next month, but it's a wait and see approach.”