With COVID-19 on the wane locally and more resources in place to handle it, the Capital Region has been cleared to begin reopening its economy starting Wednesday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the decision at his daily briefing Tuesday. The move puts the eight-county region in Phase 1 of reopening, allowing careful restart of businesses that have the least potential for spread of the virus: construction, agriculture, forestry, pickup/dropoff retail, manufacturing and wholesale trade.
At intervals of at least two weeks, other business sectors will be allowed to reopen in Phases 2, 3 and 4. The businesses in each successive phase are deemed less essential to the economy and more conducive to spread of disease. If infection activity picks up, the reopening will be slowed or halted.
The state measures a region’s readiness to reopen with seven metrics that show the level of COVID-19 illness in the region and the ability of that region to respond to the pandemic.
The Capital Region had met six of the seven metrics but was stuck for a while on the last metric: Hiring and training enough contact tracers to identify everyone who has been in sustained close contact with newly diagnosed COVID-positive people. Once identified, these potentially infected people can be tested and/or quarantined.
Cuomo said Tuesday this has happened: “Capital Region, which has met many of the health metrics, has to get their tracers up and running. We've been working with them to do that. They need 383 tracers, they found 430 working together so that's great news.”
Cuomo shut down substantial portions of the state's economy in March to slow the spread of the virus, which in mid-April peaked at nearly 800 dead and nearly 19,000 hospitalized in a single day. The greatest impact was in New York City and its immediate suburbs, all of which still fall short of the metrics they must meet to reopen.
The shutdown has not been complete, however. Construction work has continued on certain projects deemed essential to health or safety, manufacturing of essential items has continued, and retail sale of vital items such as food has continued.
Capital Region business leaders Tuesday welcomed the first stages of reopening, but cautioned that normalcy is still a long way off, and that it may not resemble the pre-pandemic normal.
The shutdown has been very hard on businesses, especially small businesses, and they’re excited at the prospect of restarting, said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
He’s not aware of any local businesses that have closed their doors permanently, but added that the rest of 2020 may be a harder test than the previous ten weeks: “Starting up is one thing, surviving for the rest of the year is another.”
The partnership the chamber and five other Saratoga County business/economic development agencies have formed has been closely focused on keeping businesses afloat, Shimkus said, but there’s another part of the puzzle that they can’t control — the public.
As the weather warms and the pandemic eases its grip on New York, the chamber is hearing from businesses that customers are walking in without masks and not staying six feet apart.
"I think a key part of this is employers are going to develop plans and employees are going to implement them but we’re going to need consumers to do what they need to do,” Shimkus said.
People also need to be patient, he added. It’s a new world for businesses.
“I think the challenge going back is we’re not going back to business as usual,” said Mark Eagan, president of the Capital Region Chamber.
The way around this, he said, will be to take things step by step.
“Businesses in Phase 1 have had a few weeks to get ready,” he noted. Businesses in subsequent phases will have at least two weeks to get ready as well.
Still, a lot of people are raring to go.
“When this whole pandemic started the business community was really supportive. But with the progress in recent weeks people have been chomping at the bit,” Eagan said.
A large Saratoga County homebuilder said Tuesday it will have supplies dropped at its construction sites starting Wednesday and hopes to get back to work Friday.
“Certainly we’re all excited to move in the direction of resuming some sense of normality,” Belmonte Builders President Peter Belmonte said. The company has been studying everything the state publishes about safe operation so it can get back to building and keep its employees safe.
Some parts of the project require people to work less than six feet apart, such as installing a hot water heater.
“There are stages of the house,” Belmonte said. “Bringing in mirrors — it’s a dangerous item and it takes a couple of people to handle it properly.
“Other things, roofing, framing? They guys are usually spread out.
“Sheetrock is awkward. It really ebbs and flows.”
The physical work is perhaps the least challenging part. Harder is getting the people to do it — there are only so many subcontractors, and every builder is going to want them on-site as soon as possible.
Then there’s a little thing called the economy.
Right now, customers and prospective customers fall into three categories, Belmonte said: Those who’ve already signed the paperwork and are gung ho about moving into their new house once it’s complete; those who’ve spent the last 10 weeks cooped up in their current house and are now determined to live somewhere better; and those too worried about their financial future to consider a half-million-dollar new house.
“Business by far is not dead but time will tell,” Belmonte said. “We’re all on pins and needles.”
His company started 2020 with a healthy backlog of orders for the construction season. Delivering them won’t be a problem; it’s making sales this year for the 2021 construction season that worries him.
The Capital Region is defined as Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Warren and Washington counties.
The neighboring Mohawk Valley region — which includes Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie counties — was cleared to reopen last week.
With the Capital Region greenlighted, seven of the 10 regions in the state have been cleared to reopen. The three regions remaining on shutdown orders are the ones where most of the state’s infections and deaths have occurred: New York City, Long Island and the Hudson Valley.
While COVID hospitalizations and deaths continue their slow decline statewide, the situation is far from over: There were 105 deaths recorded Monday, 1,474 new positive tests and 5,818 people hospitalized statewide.
An individual region could well backslide because of a single infection cluster.
Central New York, for example, has seen its hospital census climb 15 of the last 18 days, from 31 to 77. So far, the rate of increase has not been rapid enough to disqualify it on the first of the seven metrics — new hospitalizations.
In the Capital Region, 113 COVID patients were hospitalized Monday, 21 in intensive care units. Three deaths were recorded, one each in Albany, Columbia and Schenectady counties. The Schenectady County death was the first reported there since May 2.
Also Tuesday, Cuomo announced a few other tentative steps toward normalcy: Local governments will be allowed to authorize gatherings of up to 10 people for Memorial Day observances and visitors will be allowed to see patients in a handful of hospitals as part of a two-week pilot project.
The visitors will face time limitations, must wear personal protective equipment and must pass symptom screening. The only Capital Region hospital participating is Albany Medical Center; the next nearest hospital is Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown.
WHAT CAN OPEN AND WHEN
Gov. Cuomo shut down much of the state’s economy in March to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s allowing it to reopen regionally in four phases based on the decline of sickness and death in a given region, as well as that region’s ability to respond to the virus.
The Capital Region was cleared to open starting Wednesday.
By self-certifying that they have detailed plans in place to keep workers, workplaces and customers safe from the virus, Phase 1 businesses can now begin to reopen. These are:
Construction, agriculture, forestry, retail (pickup or dropoff only), manufacturing and wholesale trade.
Each subsequent phase will start at least two weeks after the preceding phase, and may be delayed in a given region if that area sees too much of an uptick in sickness.
Phase 2 is: Administrative support, professional services, real estate and retail.
Phase 3 is: Restaurants and food services.
Phase 4 is: Arts, education, entertainment and recreation.