Reopening creates uncertainty while inspiring optimism

Phase one proves more complicated than expected as businesses adjust

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Greta Perl, like many in the county, saw her business, the Commons toy store Alphabet Soup, change drastically due to COVID-19. She had to close her storefront, offering website orders and delivery in lieu of in-person visits. It wasn’t an easy transition, Perl said.

“There was the workforce reduction rule too, so I wasn’t allowed to have any other staff at all,” she said. “If I take a day off, we’re closed that day, no deliveries are happening, no one to answer the phone and all that. So, it’s definitely been a lot of interrupted service for the customers. And I get tired.”

On Friday, March 15, Tompkins County and the rest of the Southern Tier region of the state joined central New York, the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley and the North Country in beginning the first reopening phase, providing some much-needed relief and hope to area business owners like Perl.

But as many can attest, reopening is not as simple as it may first appear, and the reality is a process filled with uncertainty but also optimism. So, as reopening continues, we’ve asked local business owners and county leaders about what to expect in this new normal.

Background

The state’s phased reopening approach, known as New York Forward, loosens PAUSE restrictions on a regional basis based on multiple criteria.

According to the state’s New York Forward website, forward.ny.gov, criteria are designed to allow phased reopenings to begin in each region only if the infection rate is sufficiently low; the healthcare system has the capacity to absorb a potential resurgence in new cases; diagnostic testing capacity is sufficiently high to detect and isolate new cases; and robust contact-tracing capacity is in place to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Gen Meredith, associate director of Cornell University’s Public Health Program, said contact tracers are among the most important criteria because they help to prevent another resurgence.

“They have the ability to connect with individuals, make sure that they have the ability to get access to testing services, to treatment and care services … and then make sure that they have the knowledge to know how they can potentially infect others and to keep them motivated in practicing those behaviors so that they do limit transmission,” she said.

According to Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa, the county plans to have about 30 fully trained individuals in the Health Department that would be able to do contact-tracing if needed within the next week.

Tompkins Cortland Community College President Orinthia Montague was recently selected to serve on the New York Forward Re-Opening Advisory Board. In addition, she’s helping the county with its reopening plan, called Moving Forward.

“As we envision how we move forward, I definitely want to be a part of that conversation,” she said. “I’d rather sit around the table and discuss the strategies of how we reopen not just the college but our economy and continue to serve our communities.”

In addition, each region needs a regional control room to monitor metrics during the reopening process. The Southern Tier’s control room includes two Tompkins County officials – Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and County Administrator Jason Molino.

“Our role and responsibility is we have a conference call every day, we discuss and evaluate the metrics that have allowed us to reopen, the seven metrics that the state has given us,” Molino said. “We monitor them daily because maintaining those metrics and those milestones will be key to staying on course for phase two.”

New York Forward includes four phases, with at least two weeks in between each phase to allow for proper monitoring of the effects of each phase. Phase one includes construction, non-food agriculture, retail for curbside pick-up, manufacturing and wholesale trade.

“Those industries were selected because they have the best potential to open and maintain social distancing and have limited public contact,” Kruppa said. “The phased approach is there to allow us to take small, slow, methodical steps so we can understand the impact of those steps on the disease incidents in our community.”

Phase two includes professional services (i.e., hair salons), retail, administrative support and real estate. Phase three includes restaurants and food services. Finally, phase four includes arts and entertainment, recreation and education.

To reopen, businesses have to consider how to protect employees and customers, including possibly changing store layout and business practices.

Each industry has specific guidelines, as outlined on the state’s website, which businesses have to study and affirm that they’ve read in order to open. In addition, businesses have to create a safety plan.

“People need to have these plans on site in their place of business and available should anyone that’s an authority checking on compliance walk in the door and ask for someone’s plan,” said Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Tavares.

For more information on specific guidelines, see forward.ny.gov, tompkinschamber.org, tcad.org, tompkinscounty.gov/health and other resources.

What does reopening look like?

As of the time of this publication, the county has been in phase one for less than a week, and as most sources interviewed for this story predicted, it wasn’t an immediate change, especially since phase one largely applies to manufacturing and construction.

As Tompkins County Area Development President Heather McDaniel explained, most manufacturers in the county had already been dubbed “essential” by the state and thus never shut down operations in the first place. As for construction, most of the larger county projects need more time to get up and running again.

“The contractors in particular sort of say, ‘Well, it’s promising that we’re allowed to really phase back in operations with guidelines and all of that in place, but the reality is that we can’t just go back to work in three days or in a week; we have to coordinate our suppliers and bring back our employees and put in place all of the protocols on every job site,’” McDaniel said. “So, really, it’s going to take two to three or even four weeks for some of the larger construction projects to really fully ramp back in.”

As a result, the most immediate change came in the form of small businesses reopening or being able to bring more staff back on site.

Perl, for example, was finally able to bring most of her employees back to the store, helping to lessen the load on her shoulders significantly.

“Phase one means that we’re allowed to have staff back in, up to our normal staffing, as much as is necessary to do the work, basically,” she said. “There’s no workforce reduction rule in place, but you’re not supposed to have any more than are necessary. But right now, because of the backlog of work, it’s very necessary to have people in as well as getting them trained.”

Concurrently with phase one’s launch, the city of Ithaca authorized six parking spaces throughout downtown for curbside pickup, said Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) Communications Manager Darlene M. Wilber. More information about location and availability can be found at downtownithaca.com.

For some businesses that have been able to operate through the shutdown with pickup and delivery, phase one largely means more paperwork, as Dryden business owners Marcy Brandt and Anastacia Mosher-Arnold can attest. Their store, Arnold’s Flower Shop, had to completely close for nearly a month when COVID-19 first shut down the state, but after receiving approval from the state, they were able to reopen just before Easter.

“We had the best Easter we had ever. We had the best Mother’s Day we had ever with less staff and less hours, which is awesome too,” Brandt said. “We’re really blessed because we’ve learned so much about what we can do more efficiently.”

And as for county government, Tompkins County departments are completing Reconstitution of Operation Plans (ROOP), preparing for reopening safely for staff and clients. The ROOP framework is publicly accessible at tompkinscountyny.gov/health/movingforward.

You can also visit the county’s YouTube page to watch Town Halls answering common questions regarding reopening.

Challenges and concerns

While many interviewed for this story view the phased reopening in a positive light, the reopening has still spurred plenty of unknowns for residents and county leaders alike.

First, there is the concern that people won’t properly abide by the safety rules still in place during reopening. And enforcing the safety guidelines for both businesses and residents can be a challenge, said Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer.

“That’s going to be the toughest part, just to make sure that people are following guidelines, because otherwise, you can risk increasing infections to the point where they have to close down again,” Leifer said. “I’m trying to sort through all that stuff right now between Tompkins and Cortland [counties] because we’re in different regions.”

Kruppa said that the Health Department’s Environmental Health Division is taking the lead on enforcement for reopening policies, taking an educational approach.

“When we hear a complaint, our first step is to contact the individual or organization or business and talk through why there might be a problem and help them understand why the behavior change will be necessary,” he said.

“And in almost every instance, that’s been sufficient and folks have worked with us and understood why they need to take the steps that we were asking. If we get to a situation where we don’t, there are legal authorities afforded to us.”

As Leifer alluded to, the issue of enforcement is important because following the guidelines put in place is crucial to preventing another outbreak. Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles said it’s a concern she’s heard from many constituents.

“You have people legitimately concerned about putting protocols in place but not having them be followed and increasing significantly the risk of a resurgence,” Kelles said. “If the protocols that are being put in place are clearly followed, I do believe that we can minimize our risk.”

Mosher-Arnold shared this sentiment, adding that following the guidelines will ensure a smooth transition to future phases.

“If we want to be able to stay open and nip this in the bud and go back to normal life, it can’t be zero or 100; there has to be a middle ground, and people need to be conscious of where they’re going, what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s not a free-for-all for all of you to just leave your house and do whatever you want; it’s just allowing businesses to be able to survive.”

Despite the fear, Kruppa said that even if more people do get infected, systems like contact tracers help to keep the county moving forward while keeping residents safe.

Following the guidelines can be a challenge in itself, especially for places like childcare centers, as Gretchen Jacobs, director of preschool and early childhood education centers at Racker, shared.

“For anyone who provides childcare, the reality of maintaining social distancing is a huge challenge,” she said. “It’s not realistic. So, we’re trying to find the medium and the balance of how do we continue to provide a service that is certainly necessary and keep everyone safe?”

And for businesses waiting for future phases, there is even more uncertainty. Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart said that the village is particularly restaurant-heavy, and ensuring customer safety on later phases is going to require some creativity.

“How are we going to maintain six-foot physical distancing inside?” he said. “Does that mean they have to remove a lot of tables? Are the larger restaurants going to be able to operate? From a financial standpoint, are they going to be able to operate with essentially half or less of their capacity? All of those things are up in the air, and it’s not something anybody can answer.”

Moving forward

As the county moves forward with reopening, sources said the best strategy is one that prioritizes safety above anything else.

“It’s important for people to keep in mind that while we continue on this phased reopening, it is all of our responsibilities to ensure that we’re doing the best not to only keep ourselves safe, but to keep our neighbors our friends, our colleagues, safe,” Montague said.

Hart said maintaining public safety and reopening the economy aren’t mutually exclusive, and achieving both goals simultaneously relies on communication.

“The reality is if we’re waiting for 100% safety, we’re waiting for something that simply doesn’t exist, and so, we have to balance those two concerns,” Hart said. “Over the next several weeks as this unfolds, I think there’s going to be a lot of work that needs to be done from the county and the local municipalities.”

Tavares said that businesses working on reopening need to put considerable thought into their safety plans and take the situation seriously.

“Patience has certainly been a theme this entire time,” she said. “And this is something where some people may have the instinct of trying to open quickly or thinking that this green light means they can just immediately start doing whatever it says in the headline. I’m just going to ask people to be reading the fine print and understanding what it is that they need to do in order to safely reopen.”

County Assessment Director Jay Franklin said businesses also have to consider other aspects of the business, like its staff, which may require some innovative thinking.

“Their employees, which hopefully have been socially distancing, this may be their first time out into the public, so you’ll have to address that and social anxiety that those employees will have kind of coming back out into the public,” Franklin said. “As we move forward, I think this gives everybody an opportunity, not just government, to take a look at what they do, reinvent, reimagine what they do.”

Kelles said patience and communication combined can help create consumer trust, boosting businesses as they reopen.

“It’s really important that people feel like the reopening of our economy is done with as much care and transparency as our efforts to go on pause and that those efforts keep everybody feeling like we’re all part of the same team to protect those who are at high risk and to prevent another surge of the virus,” she said.

Conclusion

Sources for this story shared an optimistic view of the future as reopening continues. As McDaniel put it, the county has been strong so far, and there’s no sign that’s stopping anytime soon.

“I think it really shows that we are resilient and we’re going to come back from this and we’re going to be stronger for it in the future,” McDaniel said. “I’m really hopeful that there’s some positive that comes out of this and we see some positive in our economy in the next year.”

Wilber shared that sentiment, adding that the county would not have been able to reopen if it weren’t for that dedication.

“We know it hasn’t been easy, but we are truly grateful for what the community has done because their efforts helped us to get to a point where it is safe to slowly start to reopen the community,” she said. “We ask for your continued patience as we begin this gradual reopening process.”

Overall, as DIA Executive Director Gary Ferguson said, it is that community spirit that will help make reopening as successful as it can be.

“Our community will rebound,” he said. “It will once again thrive, but we need to bridge the gap between now and that future. It will require courage, creativity, persistence and patience.”

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