Week XIV: As the Capital Region enters Phase 3, vigilance still urged

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“I think people need to realize that reopening is not flicking an ‘on’ switch. It’s a dial of continuum,” said Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen.

ALBANY COUNTY — In the week leading up to the Capital Region beginning its third phase of reopening — on Wednesday, June 17 — the message has been steady at both the state and county levels: We’re headed in the right direction but we must be vigilant.

Even as the number of Albany County residents testing positive for COVID-19 continues to decline, the county’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, repeats, almost like a mantra, the need for residents to continue frequent hand-washing, to avoid large gathers, and to wear a mask when it’s not possible to stay six feet from others.

While New York State was the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and suffered more hospitalizations and deaths than any other state, Governor Andrew Cuomo has pointed out, New York followed a data-based strategy, dependent on widespread testing, and now is reopening in four phases without spikes in the disease.

“We’re continuing to follow the data and the metrics,” Cuomo said at his Wednesday press briefing. “Our number of hospitalizations, lowest level since we started, amen, 1,400. Number of deaths, 17 deaths in the state of New York — 17. Lowest number since we started.”

The federal government left leadership on controlling the pandemic up to individual states, which took varied approaches. New York has stressed the importance of testing and developed a set of metrics that must be met with a two-week gap between each of four phases to be sure the numbers aren’t spiking.

“The COVID virus is increasing in 20 states across the country,” Cuomo said on Wednesday. “The states without the smart reopening plans are going up.”

Whalen on Wednesday also noted that, in other areas of the country, reopening can be tied to spikes in coronavirus disease 2019.

“I don’t think this needs to happen,” she said. “I think people need to realize that reopening is not flicking an ‘on’ switch. It’s a dial of continuum.”

Cuomo also announced on Wednesday that 60,000 New Yorkers were tested for COVID-19 on Tuesday and that fewer than 1 percent tested positive.

“That is the lowest percentage of positive that we have had since we have started. Period,” said Cuomo. “That is one of the lowest levels in the United States of America and we once again have demonstrated that we’ve gone from the worst infection rate in the country to the best infection rate in the country.”

Cuomo and Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy have continually stressed the importance of wearing masks as society reopens. On Saturday, Cuomo signed legislation repealing an outdated statute that criminalized the wearing of a mask in public.

Also at Saturday’s press briefing, Cuomo said it was up to local governments to study the coronavirus data to control outbreaks. “When they find those positive cases, they have to trace those cases back. Where are people getting the virus? Are they getting it at work? Are they getting it at a restaurant? Are they getting it on the street corner? Are they getting it at protests? …

“I know it’s tedious, but it’s also very important. And I said to the local governments frankly yesterday: This is their job. And if they don’t do their job, then they’re going to have a really unpopular task, which is explaining to their local community why they have to slow or stop the reopening.”

On Monday,  because of the good numbers, Cuomo said, gatherings of 25 people — rather than a maximum of 10 — will be allowed for regions in Phase 3.

Cuomo also said, “Everyone has a role to play in all of this as we’re reopening. Employers have a role, store owners have a role, employees have a role, individuals have a role, and local government has a real responsibility.”

On Wednesday, McCoy urged county residents to call a hotline for complaints at 1-833-789-0470.

“If you see something not being done right … it’s up to us to police each other,” he said.

Whalen had two thoughts on why the cases of COVID-19 in Albany County haven’t spiked after so many protests. “First,” she said, “we’ve been doing what we needed to do for a long time … so there wasn’t a lot of COVID to circulate.”

Second, Whalen said, many protesters wore masks and were vigilant in trying to “respect other people’s spaces” despite the crowds.

“We need to remain vigilant if we want to continue the course that we’re on, which is to reopen,” said Whalen.


Phase 3

Phase 3 allows restaurants and hotels to open as well as personal-care services. With the start of Phase 3, McCoy noted on Tuesday, about 90 percent of the county’s jobs will be back online.

According to an analysis presented in May 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.

“We’ll see more and more people out and about, which is great,” McCoy said on Tuesday.

He also went over some of the state guidelines for opening restaurants, which are outlined in detail under Phase Three Industries at the state’s website.

Restaurants can serve customers indoors at 50-percent their maximum capacity. McCoy had noted earlier that, with outdoor dining allowed, some restaurants can use that outdoor space to get near their usual capacity.

If restaurant tables can’t be distanced, five-foot barriers must be placed between them. A maximum of 10 people can sit at a table and those people must be part of the same party although they need not be from the same household.

Seating at bars must be six feet apart and workers and customers must use separate entrances and exits.

Personal-care services, which include nail salons, spas, and tattoo parlors as well as services for tanning, piercing, and waxing, must also function at no more than 50 percent of maximum capacity. Customers and staff must wear masks and stay six feet apart except where the service requires proximity.

Barriers must be erected between workstations and shared products, like nail polish, are not to be handled by multiple customers.

There are to be no shared waiting areas; rather, customers should wait outside or in their cars until their appointment time for a service arrives.

“These are set up by the governor,” said McCoy of the rules. “We have to continue to enforce them. We need your help to do that.”

McCoy said it was jarring to see seven new COVID-19 cases since the day before. “It’s all up to you whether we take a step back or not,” he said.

McCoy described a situation where a customer, told to wear a mask by a worker, “lost their cool” and spit on and hit the worker.

Cuomo has issued an order that businesses may turn away customers not wearing masks.

“I know you feel confined … It’s not easy,” McCoy said of wearing a mask. He suggested people that didn’t want to wear masks could shop online.

He also said, “Enforcement goes down to the consumers and the workers.”

Large indoor malls, like Colonie Center and Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, are not part of the Phase 3 reopening. Only mall stores with outside entrances are open.

McCoy said he wished he could open the big indoor malls, getting people back to work. “They’re big malls and they can social distance and limit the amount … People would be the same as walking down the street … You could get to restaurants and shops.”

However, air in enclosed, indoor spaces is far more likely to spread the virus than outdoor spaces. (See related story.)



Cuomo also announced on Tuesday that hospitals and group homes will be allowed to accept visitors at their discretion.

Any facility that chooses to allow visitors must follow state guidelines, including time-limited visits and requiring visitors to wear personal protective equipment and be subject to symptom and temperature checks.

Hospital visits have been expanded from a pilot program that was launched in May, which demonstrated that hospitals could provide safe visits for patients and families, Cuomo said. Hospitals statewide will now be able to provide visits if they so choose.

Group homes certified by the state’s Office for People with Developmental Disabilities will be allowed to accept visitors beginning Friday, providing they adhere to state guidance and certify compliance to the office before starting visiting.

The prohibition on nursing-home visitors remains in place as the state’s health department reviews the situation. In Albany County, McCoy said earlier, more than 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths were of nursing-home residents.

Currently, McCoy said, at the county’s nursing home, Shaker Place, there are no residents with COVID-19, following a spate of earlier deaths.

“We have to be careful how we reopen up our nursing home,” said McCoy.

He also said that Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple wants to know when visitors will again be allowed at the county’s jail.



“Please get tested,” McCoy urged at his Wednesday morning briefing. 

Albany County, working with the Whitney M. Young Jr. Health Center, set up mobile walk-up testing sit for at risk neighborhoods but participation at those sites has fallen off. 

“If we don’t get more, we’ll shut down the mobile testing sites,” said McCoy, noting the resources the sites use.

“The virus is still there. It didn’t go away,” said McCoy.

He noted the state’s drive-through site at the University at Albany uptown campus is still open as is the Rite-Aid in Colonie, and Priority 1 Urgent Care in Guilderland, which does both diagnostic and antibody testing.

McCoy also noted that, with the start of Phase 3, nursing homes in the region now need to test their workers just once a week rather than the former twice a week.

“It’s been a huge financial drain on everyone,” said McCoy.

Cuomo reported Tuesday that six weeks after 12,000 New Yorkers had been tested for COVID-19 antibodies, another sample of 12,000 was taken and the percentage of New Yorkers with antibodies had gone up.

“Last time we did the survey was 12.3 statewide — it’s now 13.4. So statewide, we’ve gone up a point,” said Cuomo.

The numbers upstate were far lower than downstate. The Capital Region went from 2.2 percent to 2.5 percent.

While it was originally thought that antibodies indicated a person would not be immediately susceptible to reinfection from COVID-19, that is no longer clear.

Of the Capital Region rate of antibodies, Whalen said, “That means 97 percent of us … don’t have antibodies and are susceptible to COVID-19.”

She stressed the need to work collectively “to ensure we are all remaining responsible.”

Whalen said her health department would continue to monitor test results and identify contacts for all positive cases of COVID-19 and make sure they are quarantined.


New numbers

As of Wednesday morning, Albany County has 1,837 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 173 residents under mandatory quarantine and one under precautionary quarantine.

The five-day average for new daily positive cases is now 3.6.

So far, 5,503 county residents have completed quarantine, with 1,775 of them having tested positive and recovered. The recovery rate for the county now stands at 96.6 percent.

There were no new deaths overnight, keeping the county’s COVID-19 death toll at 120.

Seven county residents are hospitalized, down from 10 on Tuesday. The county’s  hospitalization rate is now 0.38 percent.

McCoy said on Wednesday that the county’s mental-health support line had an “uptick in phone calls since people have been outside, seeing things differently.”

The support line is available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 518-269-6634. Anyone experiencing a psychiatric emergency should still call the Albany County Mobile Crisis Team at 518-549–6500.

McCoy concluded his briefing, “Thank you to everyone for doing the right stuff.”

More Regional News

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.