By Michael J. Billoni
Kevin Slachciak, who has owned Say Cheese Pizza Co. on Love Road for 25 years, is beginning to believe Gov. Andrew Cuomo “hates small businesses and wants us all to close” after he was notified of the new “yellow zone” restrictions he must follow as a restaurant in Erie County.
The new rules limit restaurants to a four-person maximum per table. What’s more, beginning Friday, all bars and restaurants must close at 10 p.m., with curbside takeout service offered after that. Slachciak said his staff has been following safety precautions since the COVID-19 pandemic began, including mask wearing, social distancing and thoroughly cleaning the restaurant and bar frequently. He said these new requirements are challenging.
“The pressure the governor is putting on small businesses because of this pandemic is difficult and we are very upset and confused about the way he operates and the thought process behind some of these decisions,” Slachciak said. “What is the difference between allowing four, five or 10 at a table if they all come in wearing a mask and have it off at the table?”
“Closing our bar at 10 p.m. means it will start to get slower from 8 p.m. on, and limiting the number at a table is going to affect tips for the young servers I have here who rely on them each week. It is very challenging for all of us,” he added.
Russell J. Salvatore, who has been serving holiday meals in his restaurants for over 60 years, is seriously considering closing his dining room at Russell’s Steaks Chops & More on Thanksgiving and offering takeout dinners because of the “yellow zone” restrictions.
“We had sold-out our two seatings on Thanksgiving, with 400 guests, and when Mark Jerge (his vice president/general manager) and I reviewed the reservations, they were all for six, eight and 10 people. There was not one for four people and we saw no way we could break up families for Thanksgiving dinner. This is a family day to give thanks and be together,” explained Salvatore, who says several of the guests were from Grand Island.
Another major requirement as a “yellow zone” restriction is that public and private schools must randomly test 20% of students and staff on campus weekly for the coronavirus.
Dr. Brian Graham, Ed.D., superintendent of Grand Island Central Schools, said he is equally challenged by this ruling.
“When we learned we were designated ‘yellow,’ as a result of the increased community spread of COVID-19, we began working closely with the Erie County Department of Health to seek their guidance as it relates to the mandate of testing. We have learned that the ECDOH will provide the rapid BinaxNow tests to school districts, but will be unable to assist with the actual weekly testing mandate,” Graham said. “This news makes the task of testing 20% of the in-person students, faculty and staff almost insurmountable. In our school district, we would have to test approximately 600 individuals every week. The test takes 15 minutes to complete and another five minutes to make sure the person is properly registered. If we assume that it will take a total of 20 minutes to process 600 individuals for testing, we would need 26 certified staff to conduct the testing in an eight-hour day. Or we could use 13 certified staff in two eight-hour days or seven certified staff in three days.
Graham continued, “Additionally, if the school district would conduct the testing by ourselves, we would need to apply for a limited service laboratory certification. Our medical director would need to review our application and approve, as well. If the limited service lab certification was approved, we would need to identify a team of individuals who could be trained and available to test 600 individuals each week that the town was deemed to be in the ‘yellow’ micro- or macro-cluster.
“The school district could also partner with an outside lab or health care provider to facilitate the testing. We are currently investigating this strategy, as well. So far, we are hearing that it would cost approximately $75 an hour for each certified individual who would assist us with the testing. As you can imagine, it could take 200 hours per week to accomplish the task of testing 600 individuals. The cost of testing alone could be $15,000 a week based upon these numbers. This does not include other staff members who would be required to assist the testers with managing the logistics of executing such an endeavor.
Graham said all of the Grand Island schools are following the hybrid model.
“We pivoted Huth Road Elementary School to 100% remote this week due to two more people being identified as positive for COVID-19 over the past two weeks at Huth,” he said. “This brought us to a total of four cases over two weeks at that school. Although there is no evidence of transmission or spread of the virus at Huth, we thought it would be prudent to allow for a thorough cleaning and disinfecting process to occur throughout this week. The pivot to 100% remote will conclude on Friday and Huth Road will be back to in person instruction on Monday.
Graham said he is very proud of students, parents, administrators, faculty and staff for all that has been accomplished this school year in keeping everyone safe.
“We have all been very compliant with social distancing, face coverings, hand hygiene and following the expectations we have set forth within all of our schools,” he said. “As of today, there is no evidence of transmission or spread of the virus in our school system. Our cleaners and custodians are heroes! They are simply the best! They have taken on this challenge with full cooperation and an incredible work ethic that is second to none. Our teachers amaze me every day. They are working so hard to create engaging teaching and learning when students are in person or home virtually. Their commitment to our students is truly appreciated.”
The chart shows the change in positive COVID-19 cases attributed to Grand Island (not the school system) starting the week of Sept. 4 and concluding on Nov. 11.
For a few months, Grand Island was averaging four to five new positive cases. Since Oct. 30, that number has jumped, first averaging 22 and, in the past week, up to 32 new cases.
“We know that this is representative of community spread,” Graham said. “Some individuals may bring the virus onto Grand Island from other communities and/or we may be seeing transmission in and among families and friends. It is now more important than ever to adhere to the non-pharmaceutical interventions that help reduce the spread of this virus. Those interventions include a minimum of 6 feet of social distancing, the wearing of face coverings whenever in public settings, following proper hand washing etiquette and quarantining when a person discovers they have been exposed to a COVID-19 positive individual.
“If we can reduce the risk of spread, we will be able to keep schools open, businesses open and places of worship open on this Island and around Erie County. If the infection rate continues to increase at the current rate, we will see many towns be placed into the ‘orange’ or ‘red’ macro-clusters. Once we are moved to ‘orange,’ we will have to move all of our schools to 100% remote teaching and learning. Places of worship will be limited to 25 people maximum or 33% capacity. Mass gatherings will be limited to 10 people for indoor and outdoor events. Businesses considered high-risk, such as gyms, personal care facilities or other nonessential businesses, will close, and outdoor dining will only be allowed with four persons maximum per table.
“If our community is designated ‘red,’ schools would be 100% remote, places of worship will be limited to 10 people maximum or 25% capacity. Mass gatherings would be prohibited, only essential businesses would be allowed to stay open and dining would shift to takeout only.
“I know our community here on Grand Island is up for the task. We must continue to follow these non-pharmaceutical measures until a vaccine is available. It is in all of our best interest to work together to mitigate spread and keep each other healthy and safe.”