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OK, now we’re in Phase 2

Governor wanted international experts to give OK first, angering many officials

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his daily coronavirus update Friday at Iona College in New Rochelle. (Photo provided by the governor’s office)

The North Country region has now been given the green light to move forward into Phase 2 reopening, effective immediately.

Phase 2 includes hair salons and barber shops, office-based jobs such as insurance and financial services, real estate and rental leasing, and some in-store retail. All of which must follow new rules.

Next would be Phase 3, which includes restaurants and bars, and then the final Phase 4, which includes entertainment, recreation and education.

The Phase 2 announcement came from Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his daily press briefing on Friday, shortly after state reps told North Country Regional Control Room members in a conference call on Thursday evening that Phase 2 reopening likely wouldn’t happen on Friday. The call sparked outrage from many upstate lawmakers, who accused Cuomo of “moving the goalposts” for reopening.

Asked by a reporter to respond to the outcry, Cuomo said, “Today is today.”

“They wanted (to reopen) this morning instead of at 1 o’clock? I can understand that,” he said. “But we wanted to make sure the data was reviewed by all the experts. A county executive may be very good at what they do, but they’re not an expert on viral transmission in a global pandemic.”

The state has partnered with Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and Samir Bhatt, senior lecturer at Imperial College London, to assess the state’s regional health data and determine whether or not it’s safe to move forward into new phases of reopening.

“I feel confident we can rely on this data,” Cuomo said. “The five regions that have been in Phase 1 can now move to Phase 2 because their data has been reviewed and the experts say it’s safe to move forward.”

Just before he left the press briefing, Cuomo was asked by a reporter about the timing of his announcement. Cuomo added that he “never talked to anyone about a time” that Phase 2 reopening would be authorized.

New rules

There are lots of new rules for Phase 2 businesses. For example, hairstylists are required to get tested for COVID-19 every two weeks, and barbershops and hair salons can only be open by appointment and at 50% occupancy maximum. Those businesses can be open for hair services only; massages, hair removal and nail care are prohibited. People getting their hair cut must wear a mask at all times. Shop owners are required to keep a log of customers that can be handed over to public health officials if contact tracing is necessary.

Office buildings can only be at 50% occupancy, and if 6 feet of distance between employees can’t be maintained, employers are required to install barriers or require employees to wear masks. No meetings without social distancing are allowed, communal sharing of food and beverages isn’t allowed, and signage and distance markers are required in closed quarters such as break rooms and restrooms. Retail stores can only have 50% occupancy at all times. Employees have to wear face masks when interacting with others, and businesses are allowed to turn customers away that aren’t wearing masks. Curbside pickup is encouraged where possible.

Malls will remain closed, as will dine-in or on-premise restaurant or bar service, gyms, fitness centers and exercise classes, video lottery and casino gaming facilities, movie theaters, “places of public amusement” such as carnivals and fairs, and concert venues.

The state has published full details of Phase 2 guidance online at forward.ny.gov/phase-two-industries.

Response

Upon hearing Cuomo’s directive that the North Country is now in Phase 2, the response from local officials was mixed. Some people were happy to hear the news while others panned Cuomo’s handling of the roll-out.

“Though the unexpected delay was frustrating, this green light is good news on two fronts,” Garry Douglas, president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce in Plattsburgh, said in a statement. “First and foremost, it’s good news because it means that the North Country is continuing to perform well on all of the health-related criteria. And it’s good news for all of the Phase 2 businesses and organizations in the North Country who can now begin to reopen or, as in the case of retail, to expand their allowed activity. Profound thanks to our health care system, our county health departments and most of all our regional residents for bringing us to this next stage.”

New York Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy, in a statement on Friday, called Cuomo’s behavior “capricious, arbitrary and punitive.”

“These regions worked incredibly hard to meet the metrics he laid out and changing the goal posts at the 11th hour is unacceptable,” he said. “We don’t need a group of international so-called experts or a power-hungry governor dictating our freedoms. Enough is enough.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, echoed Langworthy and pointed to what she sees as the governor’s “failed leadership” and “lack of basic communication skills.”

“The governor caused mass confusion and widespread, bipartisan outrage from elected officials, community leaders, and small businesses for arbitrarily moving the goalposts for entering into Phase 2 of re-opening our economy,” Stefanik said in a statement.

State Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, called for the state Legislature to have an equal role in the reopening process.

“Something as so important as our state’s economy and the lives of all New Yorkers shouldn’t be subject to the arbitrary whims of the governor,” he said in a statement.

Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, questioned why there was “a delay and lack of communication” on reopening guidance.

“I have continually advocated that the North Country will take longer to recover economically than most regions, so I am relieved that we can safely move into the next phase,” he said in a statement.

To trigger each new phase of reopening, the region has to continue to see a 14-day decline in net hospitalizations and deaths, the number of new people who are hospitalized needs to remain under two per 100,000 residents on average every three days, the total number of available hospital beds and intensive care unit beds needs to stay above 30%, there need to be at least 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents or enough tracers based on the infection rate, and the number of tests processed needs to continue meeting a set threshold.

As of Friday, the North Country region — which includes Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, St. Lawrence, Lewis and Jefferson counties — still hit all of those benchmarks.

The governor had said new phases would be separated by two-week increments, but on Sunday he said moving to Phase 2 would be “more of a judgment call.”

COVID-19, by the numbers

As of Thursday, two people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the North Country region, none of them in intensive care, according to the state Department of Health.

Neither Essex or Franklin County has reported a COVID-19 fatality. Clinton County has reported four deaths and St. Lawrence two deaths, according to the DOH.

On Friday, Franklin County reported two active cases of COVID-19, one more than Thursday. Essex County reported one active case of COVID-19 as of Thursday.

Franklin County has seen 17 test-positive and 95 suspected cases of COVID-19 since March, as of Friday. Essex County has reported 37 test-confirmed and 15 suspected cases since March, as of Thursday.

Local hospitals continue to conduct COVID-19 testing around the region.

Anyone who wants to be tested in this area is encouraged to call their primary care physician to get a health order for testing. Call Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake at 518-897-2462 to schedule an appointment at the main clinic or one of its upcoming mobile testing sites. Elizabethtown Community Hospital can be reached at 518-873-3069. Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone can be reached at 518-481-2700. Mountain Medical Urgent Care, with offices in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, can be reached at 518-897-1000. The statewide COVID-19 hotline is 1-888-364-3065.

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