Week XII: Capital Region opened Phase 2 jobs

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Andrew Kennedy cautioned that businesses will have to run differently now. “It’s not hanging out in cubicles and talking and sharing a break room,” he said. Kennedy is the president and chief executive officer for the Center for Economic Growth.

ALBANY COUNTY — The Capital Region on Wednesday entered Phase 2 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan without a hitch.

“Welcome back,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy during his Wednesday press briefing to the Phase 2 workers who will be returning after many of them have been home for 86 days.

“You’ll be fresh eyes,” said McCoy. “If you see something wrong, report it … Your health and safety is first and foremost.”

Last Friday, as five of the state’s 10 regions prepared to enter Phase 2, there was a delay of half a day as Governor Andrew Cuomo had international experts review the data on coronavirus.

The Capital Region, which includes eight counties, passed muster with the experts on Tuesday so there was no delay.

Phase 2 jobs — more than half of Albany County jobs — include office jobs, real-estate jobs;  vehicle sales, leases and rentals; barber shops and hair salons; and retail rental, repair, and cleaning activities.

If businesses and customers follow protocols and the metrics set by the state hold, the Capital Region would begin Phase 3 on June 17. That includes restaurant and food-service jobs, of which Albany County has about 14,500, McCoy said.

Cuomo on Wednesday announced outdoor dining at restaurants will be permitted in Phase 2 so restaurants in the seven regions that have already entered the second phase — the Capital Region, Central New York, the Finger Lakes, the Mohawk Valley, the North Country, the Southern Tier and Western New York — can reopen for outdoor dining beginning June 4. Outdoor tables must be spaced six feet apart, all staff must wear face coverings, and customers must also wear face coverings when not seated. 

Only New York City — the epicenter of the pandemic — has not begun reopening but it is slated to begin Phase 1 on June 8.

Businesses that still remain closed during Phase 2 include indoor malls with more than 100,000 square feet of retail space, dine-in restaurants and bars, event venues, gyms, indoor movie theaters, gaming parlors, and places of public amusement.

McCoy said on Wednesday that Pyramid, owner of Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, had “put a letter out” wanting to reopen, although currently, according to state regulations, only stores with outdoor entrances can open if they are part of a mall with 100,000 square feet of retail space.

“We have pushed that up to the control room,” said McCoy of the group of state officials and representatives from the region’s eight counties that talk daily.

“It’s not just, open the doors and everybody has a party. It’s 50-percent occupancy in office buildings, signage on markers, et cetera, no meetings without social distancing, don’t share food or beverages,” said Cuomo at a press briefing earlier this week.

On May 28, he had issued an executive order authorizing businesses to deny entry to people who do not wear masks or face-coverings.

“We’re giving the store owners the right to say, ‘If you’re not wearing a mask, you can’t come in.’ That store owner has the right to protect themselves. That store owner has a right to protect the other patrons in that store,” Cuomo said at his Thursday press briefing. “You don’t want to wear a mask, fine. But you don’t then have a right to then go into that store if that store owner doesn’t want you to.”

 

Economy

On Wednesday, Andrew Kennedy, president and chief executive officer for the Center for Economic Growth, gave an overview of the Capital Region economy and how it was affected by the pandemic shutdown.

“Our county was at a high point in mid-March,” he said, with the labor force in the eight-county region in a seven-month expansion.

The region’s unemployment insurance beneficiaries had declined for more than 14 months in a row, he said.

However, in April, unemployment for the region was close to 13 percent, Kennedy reported. That is the highest unemployment rate in the last decade, he said, noting the highest point prior had been in February 2012 when the unemployment rate was 8.5 percent.

Kennedy said there are close to 70,000 unemployed workers in the CapitalRegion.

His not-for-profit center, which had for 30 years focused on attracting businesses to the Capital Region, has now pivoted itself to help local companies pivot and survive in the midst of the pandemic.

Kennedy said the Capital Region has been “more resilient” than other upstate New York areas and that its unemployment rates have been lower than the national average for the last 25 years, which he attributed to the diversity of the Capital Region economy.

Kennedy cautioned that businesses will have to run differently now. “It’s not hanging out in cubicles and talking and sharing a break room,” he said. “Those things are going to have to be limited.”

Shared equipment — like water coolers or coffee makers — “pose a public health risk,” he said. So workers, for example, will have to bring their lunches and eat them at their desks, and then take home what’s left rather than mingling with others and washing dishes in a break room.

Kennedy also said that his center, in addition to helping businesses, is working with community colleges so students can be trained for industries that are coming back quickly.

He said the Capital Region has a strong manufacturing base that “has not missed a beat.”

 

Testing

McCoy expressed concern throughout the week that large gatherings, first over Memorial Day weekend and then with the recent protests for social justice, could spread the coronavirus and set back the county’s progress.

Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said on June 1, “Any time at a mass gathering, you’d be worried about exposure.” People in the peaceful protests on Saturday afternoon “by and large” appeared to be wearing masks and maintaining social distance, Whalen said. The crowds on Saturday night, she said, were “more concerning.”

Whalen said she has taken initial steps to organize COVID-19 testing for the protesters. The first responders are already able to be tested as essential workers.

By reaching out to the state about testing for the protesters, Whalen said, she learned the already-in-place final criteria — if a doctor feels testing is appropriate — would qualify the protesters for testing.

“We would consider this appropriate,” said Whalen.

McCoy announced on Wednesday that first responders and those who attended the rallies and protests over the last several days and believe they may have been exposed to COVID-19 can get a free walk-up test on Thursday, June 4, at the Capital South Campus, 20 Warren Street, in Albany.

No appointment is needed. Testing is available between 1:30 and 4 p.m., and those interested are asked to bring an ID and insurance if they have it. If they don’t have insurance, it is free.

McCoy urged all residents in at-risk neighborhoods to take advantage of the walk-up mobile testing sites that the county, working with the Whitney M. Young Jr. Health Center, has set up.

“We need to get the numbers up … for a scientific approach,” McCoy said. The number to call to schedule an appointment is 518-465-4771.

“We need your help,”said Mccoy.

He also announced that through Thursday the state is providing free antibody testing for restaurant and food-delivery workers. No appointment is necessary. The test site is at the SEFCU Arena on the University at Albany uptown campus.

The state continues to run a drive-through diagnostic testing site on the campus as well. Appointments are needed there as they are for the Rite-Aid in Colonie and the Priority 1 Urgent Care Center in Guilderland.

In addition to residents with symptoms of COVID-19 or residents who have been exposed to a COVID-19 patient, residents returning to work are now eligible for testing.

 

Tallies

Albany County now has 1,754 confirmed cases of COVID-19, an increase of seven in the last 24 hours. There are now 725 county residents under mandatory quarantine and six under precautionary quarantine.

The five-day average for new daily positives is now down to 13.6.

So far, 4,688 Albany County residents have completed quarantine, with 1,382 of them having tested positive and recovered. That brings the county’s recovery rate to 78.79 percent.

As of Wednesday morning, 18 county residents are hospitalized, with one in an intensive-care unit. The county’s hospitalization rate stands at 1.02

No new COVID-19 deaths have occurred since Sunday, keeping the county’s death toll at 112.

More Regional News

  • Originally, scientists thought that the B.1.17 variant, while more transmissible, was not more severe. Recently, however, British scientists have reported “updated and additional analyses, which together strengthen the earlier finding of increased disease severity in people infected with VOC B.1.1.7 compared to other virus variants.”

  • Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that 18 new cases of B.1.1.7 — the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant first identified in the United Kingdom — have been identified in New York State. This brings the state’s total of known B.1.1.7 cases to 154.

  • On Thursday, President Joe Biden addressed, remotely, the National Governors Association, which Andrew Cuomo chairs. Biden stressed his theme of uniting Americans and urged support of the American Rescue Plan.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.