Week X: Capital Region goes back to (approved) work

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“We have a lot ahead of us and we can’t do it without you,” Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said at his Wednesday morning press briefing.

ALBANY COUNTY — After 70 days of most economic activity being on hold to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Capital Region on Wednesday entered the first phase of reopening.

“We have a lot ahead of us and we can’t do it without you,” Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said at his Wednesday morning press briefing.

Businesses allowed to open on Wednesday include construction, manufacturing, retail with curb-side pickup, and farming, forestry, and fishing.

Also on Wednesday, the state’s labor department announced it had paid over $10 billion in unemployment benefits to over 2 million New Yorkers since the pandemic outbreak, and its application backlog has been reduced to 7,580.

The Capital Region joins six of the 10 regions designated statewide — Western New York, Central New York, North Country, Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, and Mohawk Valley — in meeting the seven metrics to begin reopening.

Only the regions hit hardest by the pandemic — Mid-Hudson, Long Island, and New York City — have yet to meet the metrics.

Expectation about beginning to reopen, and some frustration with it not being soon enough, grew during the week. 

On Friday, Albany County’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, cautioned about reopening, “It does not mean coronavirus is gone. We know that it’s still in the community. We know there is still a risk and, as we start to open, it’s very important that people are mindful of that.”

Going forward, Whalen said, increasing testing is essential “so that we can rapidly identify and contain cases as they come up.” She went on, “I have no doubt that opening up will mean an increase in our cases. And our ability to control that is going to be essential to avoid hospital surge capacity and other issues.”

Further, she said, “In this world of instant gratification and instant need for data, we have said all along that what you do today will influence what happens in two weeks’ time. If we reopen on Wednesday, we will not expect to see changes in our data for two weeks.”

The incubation period for coronavirus disease 2019 is two days to two weeks. And the state’s four-phased reopening system allows for two weeks between each phase.

“We will not expect to see an uptick in deaths for four to five weeks,” said Whalen.

Whalen also noted that the state has expanded its criteria for people who can be tested for COVID-19 to include people who will be returning to work for Phase 1 businesses. (See related story.)

She strongly urged all those who qualify for testing to get tested.

On Saturday, a third protest was held at the capitol as people from across gathered to rail against the restrictions and the governor.

Also on Saturday, McCoy released the regional reopening plan, which outlines protocols for each of the four phases.

Phase 2, which could start on June 3 if the metrics continue to be met, includes office settings, retail, and real estate. Phase 3, which could start on June 17, includes restaurants and hotels while Phase 4, which could start on July 1, includes education, arts, entertainment and recreations.

The regional plan asks all businesses and employees to sign a pledge that they understand what is being asked of them and are committed to doing their part to reopen the Capital Region for business and keep it open.

The plan also outlines protocols for each type of business.

According to an analysis presented earlier this month by Kevin O’Connor, the county’s director of economic development, Albany County has 21,309 jobs, or 8.7 percent of all its jobs, that fit Phase 1 categories.

The majority of Albany County jobs — 123,663 jobs or 50.26 percent — fall into Phase 2 categories. Phase 3 jobs, for food services and accommodations, number 14,453 or 5.9 percent in Albany County. And, the last to reopen, Phase 4, number 25,411 or 10.4 percent in Albany County.

People with “essential jobs” — government, health care, information, utilities, agriculture, and mining among them — have been working all along. In Albany County, there are 59,558 essential jobs or 24.4 percent of all jobs.

Right now, gatherings continue to be restricted to 10 people.

At Wednesday’s county briefing, O’Connor said, “Every business we’ve talked to without exception is looking to instill confidence back into the economy. They want to instill confidence in their employees that their workplace is a safe place for them to show up, and they want to instill confidence in the workplace so that people will come back and patronize their businesses.”

The businesses, he said, will put precautions in place to avoid a resurgence of the disease. He also said a portal will be set up for businesses to interact, get information, and post their plans.

McCoy said that enforcement of the plan’s protocols would fall to employees and patrons. “Can we go after them if they don’t sign the pledge? “ He said the answer was “no” but that businesses who didn’t comply would be made known.

O’Connor said one business owner put it succinctly: “It would be worse to open up and have another shutdown than to not have opened up at all.” O’Connor said the owner would have hired back employees and restocked inventory “with no revenue to support any of that.”

Mark Egan, president and chief executive officer of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce, said of small to mid-sized companies, “Their number-one issue is cash flow.”

Egan said that the chamber and Albany County have jointly applied, through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, for funds to loan to businesses hurt by the pandemic. Businesses in Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Saratoga, and Schenectady counties will be able to apply.

“We’re confident to get funds,” said Egan. “We’re not sure how much.” The revolving fund is capped at $10 million, Egan said, and he hopes to know by July what the award is.

Meeting metrics

Leading up to the governor’s announcement on Tuesday, that the eight-county Capital Region had met the seven required metrics, the week was fraught with tension. The tension came over discrepancies with two of the metrics — on hospitalization rates and death rates.

Albany County officials maintained that the state’s numbers were off with regional hospitals in Albany having patients and deaths that should properly be attributed to other areas.

And, McCoy said, 60 percent of the deaths were from area nursing homes and the region has a disproportionate share.

“The underlying principle, whether it’s separating out nursing-home residents or identifying where these residents come from, is: What is the risk factor in regard to spreading the infection? That is the critical component,” said Assemblyman John McDonald at Sunday’s county briefing.

Once the figures aligned for those two metrics, the region had to come up with 30 contact tracers for every 100,000 residents. McCoy said the county had no problem with meeting that metric since 40 tracers were already working with the county’s health department and the volunteers in the county’s medical corps as well as the county’s emergency medical services workers stepped up.

Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber wrote in his daily email letter to residents on Tuesday, “On very short notice yesterday, more than a dozen town employees answered the county’s call for contact tracers which helped the Capital Region meet the last metric for the phased reopening of the local economy.”

Ultimately enough tracers — either from reassigned government jobs or hired through the state’s application process — took the required four-hour online training and passed a test with a score of at least 85.

Contact tracers talk to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 to see who they have been in contact with so that those people may be placed under quarantine to stop the spread of the disease.

As of Wednesday morning 1,552 Albany County residents had tested positive for COVID-19, up 71 from Tuesday. Also, 847 county residents are mandatory quarantine and five are under precautionary quarantine.

So far, 3,943 residents have completed quarantine, with 1,026 of them having tested positive and recovered. The proportion of those who have tested positive and recovered has now grown from 53.5 percent to 66.1 percent since May 5.

Twenty-seven residents are hospitalized, with one in an intensive-care unit. The hospitalization rate for Albany County stands at 1.73 percent.

The reason for the spike in confirmed cases, McCoy said, was because Teresian House had its elderly residents tested through a private contractor and the test results came in all at once. This brought the five-day averages for new cases in the county up to 25.4.

Earlier in the week, Whalen had said, “We’re hearing some concerns with our nursing homes about meeting the deliverables of testing twice weekly.” Cuomo had issued an executive order last week that nursing-home workers and residents be tested for COVID-19 two times each week.

County officials had raised problems with this directive both because of practical concerns — the labs might not produce results before the next test is due — as well as costs.

On Wednesday, McCoy said Shaker Place, the county’s nursing home, continues to implement the twice-weekly tests. This week, he reported, 190 employees have been tested; 183 were negative and seven were positive. There are now 19 residents who have tested positive within the facility and 10 who are in hospitals. To date, 33 residents have recovered from the virus.

He also announced two more deaths from COVID-19 — a woman in her eighties and a woman over 100 years old — bringing the county’s death toll to 72. 

McCoy said on Wednesday that 65 percent of the county’s deaths are of nursing-home residents, which he said was a problem “around the world.”

At Albany County’s nursing home, McCoy said, nine residents had died at Shaker Place and five Shaker Place residents had died in the hospital.

More Regional News

  • The stock market, which reopened Tuesday, is smarter than before, the governor says, as masks are worn and distances kept. Similarly, Albany County’s executive said local businesses that reopened last week area following protocols and there have been no new COVID-19 deaths in Albany County since Thursday.

  • “These are very serious times and you can’t do things like you want to do,” Dion Lewis said of following protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Lewis helped launch a new county initiative — #AlbanyCountyStaySafe — to get teens to submit videos and photos of how they are staying safe.

  • “We’re all talking about what is the spread of the virus when you increase economic activity,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo at his Sunday press briefing. “Well, how do you know what the spread of the virus is? Testing, testing, testing.”

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