Officials urge caution as CNY begins to ease restrictions
OSWEGO — Seven weeks after COVID-19 brought much of the state to a standstill, central New York and other upstate regions are starting the first phase of what experts say will likely be a slow re-opening process.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday the central New York region had met the seven benchmarks required by the state to begin re-opening, with certain manufacturing, construction, retail and other sectors able to open Friday with safety measures in place. Central New York, which includes the counties of Oswego, Cayuga, Cortland, Madison and Onondaga, joined the North County, Finger Lakes, Southern Tier and Mohawk Valley in easing restrictions Friday. All those regions have now met the state criteria to begin the slow, methodical re-opening of the state’s economy.
“All arrows are pointed in the right direction and now the question becomes focused on re-opening,” Cuomo said Thursday at a press conference in Syracuse. “People have to get back to work and the state needs an economy… we are doing this in a calibrated way and monitoring the data, facts and metrics every singe day and using the lessons we’ve learned from others who have already gone through this.”
Oswego County Legislature Chairman James Weatherup, R-Central Square, who expressed a high level of confidence throughout the week that central New York would meet the benchmarks for re-opening, said the county was “elated” to be entering phase one of the process.
Weatherup said it’s been a long haul, and that a lot of hard work went into the central New York region reaching phase one. He characterized the governor’s announcement as an encouraging step forward, but noted phase one is not the end of the road.
“It’s still going to be a tough month or so,” Weatherup said. “We still have to maintain the distancing and the other protection measures.”
Phase one of the state’s reopening plan includes construction, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, limited retail, manufacturing and wholesale trade.
Specific information on what falls under those categories can be found at forward.ny.gov.
Earlier this week the central New York region had met six of the seven requirements for reopening, but fell short of testing 30 people per 1,000 monthly average over a seven-day period. Onondaga County made a major push throughout the week as other counties, including Oswego, stepped up their testing of essential workers and nursing home employees.
New Yorkers are still required to wear facemasks in public, continue social distancing of at least six feet and avoiding non-essential gatherings.
Following Cuomo’s announcement, Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow Thursday ended the local Stop the Spread Stay at Home Order enacted in early April. Barlow’s Thursday announcement lifted the ban on non-essential travel as of 5 p.m. Friday.
“We’re obviously extremely pleased that central New York is able to re-open,” Barlow said in a Thursday evening announcement.
There was a noticeable uptick in activity in the Port City’s downtown Friday afternoon as the temperature topped 70 degrees, a sight not seen since February.
The community did its part to stop the spread of the coronavirus locally, Barlow said, expressing gratitude to residents but noting the painful and difficult process would likely continue.
“We’re not through with this battle yet,” Barlow said, urging residents to continue social distancing, wearing facemasks and not gathering in groups. “I would ask you to continue limiting your travel and continue to not take the entire family to the store if you have to go to the store. Limit your trips to the store and don’t try to find a reason to go to the store.”
Cuomo said local and state officials would continue to monitor the seven criteria, which include rigorous testing requirements, hospital capacity, and measures on the number of sick and dying. In the event those benchmarks are not met, or the infection rate for an area exceeds 1.1 — meaning one infected person infects more than one other person — the reins would be pulled back on the reopening process.
“We will continue to monitor the level of activity and make sure it doesn’t create a second wave of this virus,” Cuomo said.
The main objective moving forward, Barlow said, is to move into the second, third and fourth phases of reopening, which he said would require people to continue taking precautions.
“If we try to act like everything is okay the fact is you’ll harm yourself, you’ll harm others and you’ll hurt the data that has allowed us to open,” Barlow said. “We could miss the next phase or could have to close back down, and that is the last thing we want. I don’t think anybody wants to live through the experience we’ve had to endure the last two months.”
Barlow’s announcement reopens parks, playgrounds, city amenities and other public areas. Oswego City Hall and city offices will remain closed until at least June 1.
Port City code enforcement and police will continue enforcing social distancing and other measures, Barlow said, adding the city would also continue to disinfect public areas.
Businesses are required to submit safety plans and have them certified with the state prior to reopening, and to consider protections for employees and customers, such as social distancing requirements and other methods aimed at reducing density. Employers may also be required to consider changes to physical workspaces, such as cleaning and sanitation.
Cuomo outlined the following guidelines and protocols for phase-one businesses reopening:
• All workers must have masks and wear them when within six feet of another worker
• Employers must provide masks to all employees
• No congregate meetings
Retail business owners: curbside pickup
• Employee and purchaser in vehicle must wear a mask, gloves preferred
• Hand sanitizer must be made available
Retail business owners: in-store pickup
• Requires ordering ahead - pre-arranged orders
• Social distancing required in store
• No more than 50 percent of maximum occupancy
• Patrons must wear masks
• Store employees must wear masks, gloves preferred
• Hand sanitizer must be made available
Businesses in the Port City with questions about the reopening processes can visit www.cityofoswegoemergencyassistance.org for criteria and guidelines or contact the city Economic Development Office with further questions.
Oswego County businesses can visit oswegocounty.com/restart for a directory of online resources aimed at assisting businesses and organizations through the reopening process.
If phase one is successful, phase two could start as early as May 29 according to state officials. Phase two would include professional services, finance and insurance, retail, administrative support and real estate. Restaurants and food services are part of phase three, while a fourth and final phase includes education and arts, entertainment and recreation.
Throughout the four re-opening phases, Cuomo has said regional leaders would be expected to monitor several indicators, including the COVID-19 infection rate and hospital capacity in a region.
Under the state’s plan, in addition to a rising infection rate, the re-opening would be halted if hospitals in a region exceed 70 percent capacity or if certain testing benchmarks are not met.
The state’s plan also called for an oversight board, or “control room,” to monitor the previously mentioned indicators as well as personal protective and other equipment usage and stock.
The central New York board includes Weatherup, McMahon, state Thruway Authority Director and former Syracuse mayor Matt Driscoll, current Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, CNY Labor Federation President Ann Marie Taliercio, CNY Regional Economic Development Council co-chair Randy Wolken and the chairs of the Cortland, Cayuga and Madison county legislatures.
As of Friday afternoon the number of active cases of COVID-19 in Oswego County stood at 14. County officials reported Friday 2,636 residents have been tested since testing started in March, and 80 individuals in Oswego County have tested positive.