There was an air of jubilation Monday as Cattaraugus County officials learned of Gov. Andrew Cuomo authorizing the Western New York counties to begin Phase 1 reopening protocols.
Manufacturing, construction, agriculture, forestry, wholesale operations and curbside retail operations that have followed state guidelines for reopening got the green light from the governor Monday in Buffalo.
Only three days earlier, county officials were lamenting the region going from meeting five of seven state metrics for reopening to four of seven, a setback for small businesses hoping the queue for opening back up would start this week.
New hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths met the metrics for Western New York over the weekend, leaving only sufficient contact tracers, unmet. County officials across the five counties rushed to meet that requirement and reported to the governor’s office early Monday that they would have more than the 521 tracers required.
“It’s wonderful, wonderful news. We’re aesthetic,” exclaimed Cattaraugus County Administrator Jack Searles shortly after the governor announced in Buffalo that the Western New York region could begin its Phase 1 opening Tuesday. “We’ve been working for that for a long time.”
Searles credited the hard work of county employees including those volunteering to train to become contact tracers, cooperation between officials in the five Western New York counties, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and state officials for listening to the counties and coming through with needed resources like test kits.
When notified it appeared the region was ready to reopen if 200 more contact tracers — people who track down contacts of residents of test positive for COVID-19 — could be signed up in the region, Searles said. An overnight email to department heads resulted in 80 more county employees signed up for a four-hour online course followed by a 40-question quiz.
“The same was happening in the other counties,” Searles said. “The response has been tremendous. If we hadn’t met that last metric, the region couldn’t open.”
County officials across the region thought the contact tracer metric had been met, but the region was about 200 short due to a change in calculations. “We pulled out all the stops to make sure we had everything submitted.”
Searles said he was one of the county employees taking the course to be certified as a contact tracer. “Everything is good to go. It looks like tomorrow things will start to reopen.”
Searles said there was “a tremendous amount of cooperation with our partners, all five counties, coming together and brainstorming for the past week.”
There were daily video meetings with the lieutenant governor, charged with overseeing the Western New York reopening. Searles said the conferences were very candid. “If you have issues, you are able to pout them on the table,” he explained.
“The lieutenant governor has been very good at shepherding this whole effort,” he added. When additional test kits were needed, she helped arrange their delivery within days. “There has been tremendous cooperation across all five counties.”
Searles said it was the “unprecedented, tremendous relationship with the state through the influence of Lt. Gov. Hochul” that got Western New York to this phase of reopening. “She turned it around to ask what we (state) can do to help. She asked what resource we needed?”
Searles spoke of the needed COVID-19 test kits for the county’s two nursing homes and two days later, a state Department of Transportation employee delivered tests to the Pines in Machias, he said.
There is “a strong sense of solidarity with the Western New York counties, borne out of crisis and frustration and working through all of that,” Searles said.
Does the county administrator think manufacturing and construction and curbside retail businesses are ready to start up safely?
“The state has templates for reopening of businesses,” Searles said. “They have to put together a plan and post it” for their employees and customers. “There are sector-specific plans and key elements that need to be considered.” For example: “How do you do social distancing? When do you wear masks? Will you test your employees? When will you disinfect?”
To enter into the Phase 1 reopening, a business needs a plan, Searles said.
Crystal Abders, director of the county’s Department of Economic Development, Planning and Tourism, has been helping businesses find “best practices” for reopening for weeks. The state templates reflect the best practices from the CDC and OSHA, Searles said.
Many businesses have been planning what their business will look like when it reopens to protect employees and customers. “My strong sense is that businesses have been working on their business plans and are ready to get going,” Searles said.
Cattaraugus County Legislature Chairman Howard VanRensselaer, R-Randolph, was also happy to hear the governor had given the all clear to begin reopening Western New York.
“It’s a good idea,” he said. “We’ve been trying to do it for some time now. We really need to get these places open and still abide with the rules the governor has set. Businesses have been preparing for this. They are ready to go. They just have to follow the guidelines,” VanRensselaer said. The social distancing, masks and disinfection are needed to prevent a local spike in COVID-19 cases.
VanRensselaer said he was also pleased with the number of county employees who volunteered to train to become a contact tracer to meet the state metric.
VanRensselaer agreed the county had been able to “dodge a bullet” so far the the coronavirus pandemic. There have been 51 COVID-19 cases and two deaths.
“Hopefully we can continue on the course we are on. If we don’t, we’re in trouble.”
Cattaraugus County Industrial Development Agency Executive Director Corey Wiktor said the reopening of manufacturing and construction after two months o0f shutdown is very important to businesses and their employees.
Wiktor said businesses have been preparing for this Phase 1 reopening during the shutdown. “Our manufacturers and construction companies are taking the approach that safety for their employees is paramount,” he said. Employers are planning distancing, masks, hand sanitizer, separate shifts and even lunch on site so they don’t have to go outside, Wiktor said.
“Employers have committed to making things as safe as possible,” Wiktor said. “They have followed insurance, OSHA and state guidelines. They are being very cautious, just as I expect the other levels will roll out. It will be done in a safe manner.”
Wiktor didn’t have specific figures, but estimated that more than 5,000 people are laid off, furloughed or lost their jobs from the pandemic. On March 1, the county’s workforce was more than 32,000 people.
“Tourism is going to be impacted this year,” Wiktor said. “Events are going to be impacted.”
Wiktor said, “Starting tomorrow (today) is going to be a test balloon for the reopening of the rest of the economy.”
Any reopening brings not only economic opportunity, but the chance of a setback, Wiktor said.
Employers are concerned about their employees’ safety, Wiktor said. “They can’t afford to have a mishap.”
(Contact reporter Rick Miller at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)