Week XVI: Phase 4 is here but not all businesses can open

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
Crossgates Mall was eerily quiet in March on the last day it was open before state directives shut malls to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Large indoor malls are still not allowed to open but now will be required to add filters to their air-conditioning systems.

ALBANY COUNTY — Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday afternoon that global public-health experts have cleared the Capital Region to enter the fourth and final phase of reopening on July 1.

“Is everyone ready for Phase 4?” Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy had asked at his Tuesday morning press briefing. “This is the day we’ve been waiting for,” he said, likening it to “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

However, the light is not shining for a number of businesses —  like large indoor malls, gyms, movie theaters, and amusement parks — that had initially planned to open with the others on July 1. The state will now require large indoor malls to install filters in their air-conditioning systems in order to reopen.

The state has changed its guidance on what can open due to outbreaks elsewhere in the country  — nationwide this week, daily records are being set on new cases of coronavirus disease 2019.

On Wednesday, Cuomo announced that testing for COVID-19 is now expanded to include all New Yorkers and also that the state will create an enforcement department to supplement the local enforcement of COVID-19 guidance and restrictions.

“We’re in the middle of a national crisis and we have to be careful. We have to be careful,” said Cuomo. “We have dark clouds on the horizon ….”

On New York testing more than any nation, he said, “That’s the key to our success. If you test, you will find people who are positive. And if you find people who are positive, you then have the tracing in place. You can find out where they got it, you can isolate them, and you reduce the spread.”

But Cuomo also said on Wednesday, “Citizen compliance is slipping. That is a fact ... Look at pictures,” he said, referencing crowded street scenes.

While it is the role of state government to decide on closings and openings, Cuomo said, “Their job, local government’s job, testing, tracing, enforcement of compliance ... I take all the abuse for the opening and reopening: too slow, too fast ... If you have citizen compliance dropping, and you don’t have local governments enforcing— then you’re going to see the virus go up.”

Referring to COVID-19 outbreaks in 32 states, McCoy said on Tuesday, “Their numbers are spiking through the roof … We’re doing it slowly, and it’s painful,” he said, wishing, for example, that the big local malls could open. “I don’t like it at times but I get it,” said McCoy of the state directives.

The outbreaks in other states caused New York, along with New Jersey and Connecticut, to require visitors from states with spikes in COVID-19 to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. The directive, issued last week, was expanded on Tuesday from the original eight states to now include 16 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

The quarantine applies to anyone arriving from a state with a positive test rate higher than 10 per 100,000 residents over a seven-day rolling average or a state with a 10 percent or higher positivity rate over a seven-day rolling average.

Travelers arriving at Albany International Airport from targeted states are given a copy of the state's COVID-19 Travel Advisory and the state’s Traveler Health Form, which they are asked to complete. The form asks for the names and addresses of those arriving; whether they have traveled to states designated as having a significant community spread of COVID-19; if they have experienced fever, chills, cough or difficulty breathing; and their final destination in New York State.

Also on Tuesday, Roberta Reardon, the state’s labor commissioner, announced more than 8,200 jobs are available in the Capital Region, posted on the Jobs Express website at jobs.ny.gov.  

“We have moved heaven and earth to get unemployed New Yorkers their money — paying 12 years’ of benefits in a matter of months,” Reardon said in making the announcement. “Now that businesses are opening back up, we want to help connect every job seeker in New York with the right job opportunity.”

After nine rounds of the Regional Economic Development Council competition, the Capital Region REDC has received $673 million for 933 projects, according to the labor department press release.

The businesses listing the most jobs on the Jobs Express website in the Capital Region were all in the health field with Trinity Health listing 281, Albany Medical Center listing 230, Centers Health Care listing 156, and Glens Falls Hospital listing 110 jobs.


Stopping the spread

While testing for COVID-19 continues apace — the governor says 40,000 New Yorkers are being tested each day, and Albany County’s health commissioner says 500 to 600 county residents are being tested daily — the number of positive tests remains low, below 1 percent.

Cuomo said at his press briefing on Monday, “We did 46,000 tests yesterday on a Sunday. And the infection rate was 0.8. When you’re below 0.1, that’s our goal, and 0.8 is lower than it was some points last week.”

The five-day average for new daily positive cases in Albany Count on Tuesday was five.

On Tuesday, Cuomo also credited the state’s tracing system, which Albany County has used since its first COVID-19 case on March 12.

“We have a very elaborate tracing system so that, when we find a positive case, we trace it back,” said Cuomo, giving examples of recent cases that had been traced back to clusters.

“Westchester County graduation, where there was a young man who apparently came up from Florida and attended a graduation that generated 13 cases. There’s an aluminum factory in Montgomery, 500 employees, 74 positives. Washington County, a slate quarry, 12 cases that we traced back. Oswego apple factory, 82 cases,” the governor reported.

He went on, “This is actually good news. It means the system works. You find a positive, you trace it back, you find the common denominator, and that’s how you stop the spread.”

Albany County on Wednesday had 5,752 residents who had completed quarantine. Of those, 1,870 had tested positive and recovered. As of Wednesday morning, Albany County had 197 residents under mandatory quarantine. Under the new state tracking system, there is no longer a precautionary quarantine distinction; all quarantines are tracked together.

On Monday, Cuomo also announced that air-conditioning filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating capable of filtering COVID-19 particles or similar air-exchange measures will be mandatory for large-mall reopenings. A COVID-19 particle is approximately 0.125 microns in diameter. Filters with a high MERV, such as High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, have been shown to help reduce the presence of COVID-19 in air filtration systems.

“For large mall re-openings — which we haven't done yet — but we’re going to make this mandatory,” Cuomo said of the MERV filters on Monday. “I would recommend — the state recommends — for all businesses and offices, they explore the potential for their air-conditioning/ air-filtration system, adding a filter that can filter out the COVID virus. We have been looking at this issue because we look around the country and you’re seeing malls, you’re seeing air-conditioning systems, indoor spaces that have been problematic. And we think this offers promise.”

Cuomo also said on Tuesday that there has been a problem with density and indoor dining in New York City while outdoor dining has worked well across the state. Albany, like many other municipalities, has closed down streets so that restaurants can serve more customers outdoors.

On Wednesday, Cuomo said that as New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic and the last of the state’s 10 regions to begin reopening, prepares to begin Phase 3 on July 6, indoor dining will not be allowed in the city because states that had reopened indoor dining were experiencing upticks on COVID-19 cases.

On the lack of compliance with social distancing, as crowds congregate, Cuomo said, “That is partially the responsibility of citizens not to do it. It’s also the responsibility of the local governments to enforce compliance.”

McCoy said on Tuesday that there have been complaints in Albany County about lack of social distancing or people not wearing masks. “The problem is enforcement,” he said. “And cops I think are a little shy to do anything because of all the temperature, what’s going on in the world right now and rightfully so.”



On Tuesday, Elizabeth Whalen, Albany County’s health commissioner, noted that the county continues to see fewer and fewer positive test results for COVID-19. She contrasted this with spikes across the nation, where states that had opened have closed down again.

“The difference comes down to wearing masks,” Whalen said. “From a scientific point of view, this is the best way to protect yourself,” she said, adding, “We have a vulnerable population that needs protection.”

“This is still a threat,” Whalen said of COVID-19. Her health department continues to monitor cases daily, tracing contacts and isolating ill people, she said.

Whalen concluded, of keeping the numbers down, “It is entirely dependent on your behavior.”

McCoy on Tuesday, as he often has over the last several months, pointed to the 20-to-29 age group in Albany County, which now has the highest number of COVID-19 cases. “These are the kids that have no signs or symptoms,” he said. Thinking they are like Superman or Superwoman, they wear no masks, McCoy said. “They go around and spread it.”

On Monday, Cuomo had called on President Donald Trump to issue an executive order requiring all Americans to wear masks in public and to wear a mask himself.

“How we’re at this point as a nation and we still haven’t done the simple, easy, minimal step of saying, ‘You must wear a mask when you’re in public.’ The president doesn’t have to pass a piece of legislation, doesn’t have to call the Congress, just sign an Executive Order saying: Wear a mask.

“We did it two months ago in this state. The other states are just starting to do it now. States that were recalcitrant. Governors that said, ‘We don't need to do this. Masks don’t work.’ All the political nonsense we heard, now they're doing a 180 and you have the same states now wearing masks.”

Cuomo also said, “The White House has been in denial on coronavirus from the get-go and their federal response has just been wrong,” said Cuomo. “That’s not a political statement. You look at the facts, that’s exactly what it says. You have coronavirus increasing in 32 states across the nation. The rate of increase is only getting worse and a number of excuses have been made for this over the past weeks to further the denial.”

Cuomo concluded, “We have offered help to any state that is experiencing a spike. We have personnel who know this better than anyone in the United States. We learned it the hard way. We have equipment. We have testing capacity. Any state that needs help, we stand ready. I will never forget how good this country was to New York when we needed help. The door swings both ways in life. Relationships work both ways.”

McCoy said on Tuesday that he was sick of politics on the federal level and he does not care what party someone belongs to.

He said that 75,000 people in the Capital Region are out of a job, having trouble putting food on the table and facing eviction.

“We need change … We need to work together,” McCoy said.

He advised putting aside differences and said, “The time for finger-pointing is over.”

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