ALBANY — For weeks, businesses have required customers to wear masks in order to gain entry.
From PriceChopper/Market 32 to Stewart’s Shops, the message is clear:
Cover your face.
But many companies are now admitting the directives are unenforceable.
“Unfortunately, some of the reminders our partners have given regarding masks have escalated to altercations involving the local police departments,” said Erica Komoroske, a spokesperson for Stewart’s Shops.
Elsewhere, employees themselves are opting to ignore regulations, including the group of Glenville Walmart staffers who stood around chatting last Friday with masks draped around their necks as customers attempted to squeeze through the gardening center.
As the Capital Region comes to life and activity picks up, who is enforcing the directives?
Answer: It’s a work in progress.
The Capital Region entered the first of the state's four-phase reopening timeline on Wednesday with the authorization of retail businesses to offer curbside pickup and resume non-essential construction and manufacturing.
Provided there are no spikes in infections, the second will include a broader sector of the workforce in two weeks.
Those sectors, retail, real estate and professional services, amount to 50 percent of Albany County’s jobs, including nearly 14,000 in the finance and insurance sectors, according to county Executive Dan McCoy, who stressed the importance of maintaining social distancing and wearing masks.
“Ultimately, it’s up to us as individuals to make that happen and avoid another shutdown,” McCoy said on Wednesday.
To reopen, all businesses must provide masks and hand sanitizer to employees and enforce social distancing.
And they are required to submit plans to the state detailing how they will comply with new directives, which include implementing strict cleaning standards and protocols designed to reduce the risk of infection.
Employers can even question employees on their health status and take their temperatures.
“This is a very, very broad action that we’re taking,” said Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman, a member of the regional “control room” guiding the reopening process.
LOCALS TAKING LEAD
Slowing the spread requires keeping people apart and keeping their faces covered.
An executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in March gives law enforcement a variety of tools to enforce social density guidelines, which range from issuing verbal warnings to charging violators with criminal misdemeanors that could fetch up to $10,000 and a year in jail.
But the order also encourages the “least invasive enforcement approach necessary to achieve compliance,” leading local law enforcement agencies to take a wait-and-see approach.
Saratoga Springs Police Department has been able to remediate most incidents, whether dissipating large groups or responding to people refusing to wear masks, without issuing tickets or making arrests, said city Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton.
“Only a small percentage [of people] refuse to take appropriate action,” Dalton said.
Schenectady City Police, too, have prioritized education over punitive measures.
“It would be an absolute last result if we had to,” said city Police Lt. Ryan Macherone.
But as temperatures climb and people flock outdoors, McCoy acknowledges the potential for an uptick.
“I am nervous with this weekend coming up,” he said. “The world is going to be different.”
Graduating to the next phase is contingent on keeping the hospitalization rate, infections and deaths under control, and Cuomo has tasked the control rooms with monitoring those metrics.
While he urged New Yorkers on Wednesday not to get “arrogant, cocky or casual,” he also conceded the state cannot compel people to wear masks.
“This has always been about what we do,” Cuomo said. “It has never been about what government mandated.”
And while the governor has tasked local officials with taking the lead on monitoring metrics, state agencies are dialed into alleged violations of social distancing guidelines and are largely shaping local responses.
All but essential businesses were ordered closed by March 22.
Since April 1, New Yorkers have been directed to report non-complying businesses, as well as other violators, to a state task force by either calling a hotline or filing complaints online.
The complaints, according to a state memo, are “reviewed for completeness, accuracy and applicability under the orders, and then referred to local authorities (as designated by the county leadership) by a team of investigators from multiple state agencies.”
Investigators will assess the credibility of complaints as well as “assist local authorities in their front-line role of responding to alleged violations of the orders by providing guidance on available civil and criminal enforcement tools.”
Fluman said the county has reviewed “tens and tens” of complaints submitted through the hotline and dedicated email form since the pandemic’s onset, and that reporting system will continue to guide local monitoring efforts during the reopening process.
Once reports find their way to his office, Fluman said he will forward them to the appropriate authorities, whether local police or the county attorney and now, public health officials.
Saratoga Springs, too, has been utilizing that system.
“If someone files a complaint by the state, we are required to show up and address the complaint as we see fit,” Dalton said.
At the same time, the Capital Region Control Room is continuing to refine the guidance that businesses need to reopen.
Businesses and employees will be asked to sign a pledge affirming the reopening principles, and a branding campaign is in the works to communicate the back-to-work recommendations as well as informal posters to display for employees and customers.
Albany County Economic Development Director Kevin O'Connor indicated businesses will largely engage in self-policing.
“Every one one of these businesses is locked in to making sure everyone who works in place of business and participating in the place of business is using all precautions necessary to avoid a resurgence,” O'Connor said on Wednesday.
Businesses are ramping up inventory and staff and the investments in an uncertain time mean it is in their own best interest to adhere to the guidelines, O’Connor said.
“It would be worse to open up and have to shut down than not to have opened up at all,” said O’Connor, citing a conversation with a local business owner.
Restaurants and bars are included in the third phase, which could begin as early as June 17 provided there are no setbacks.
Companies like Walmart pledged to continue to encourage customers “to be mindful of one another during this unprecedented time and adhere to company and community guidelines and recommendations within our stores.”
“We appreciate this being brought to our attention and have reemphasized our standards and associate expectations with store leadership," said WalMart spokesperson Casey Staheli of the Glenville incident.
Several regions reopened late last week, including Mohawk Valley and Central New York, and Cuomo said it’s too early to determine if there has been an uptick in infections or hospitalizations, which typically lag two weeks behind spikes.
“We have not seen anything significant anywhere that is worth mentioning,” Cuomo said.
Dr. James Malatras, an adviser to the governor, said the state will pivot to analyzing data in real-time in order to nimbly respond to any spikes or irregularities.
“If you see a number of things pop in real-time — and we do this on a 24-hour basis — then we’ll note it to the Department of Health,” he said.