Counties want state to allow faster re-opening
Dutchess County will not be automatically grouped with hard-hit Rockland and Westchester counties as Gov. Andrew Cuomo implements a regional approach to reopening businesses, County Executive Marc Molinaro said on Thursday (April 30) as Putnam County officials called for the same consideration.
Cuomo announced on Sunday (April 26) a plan for a phased-in re-opening of businesses closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It could begin as early as May 15, when his current stay-at-home order expires.
Re-opening would be done using the state’s 10 Regional Economic Development Councils as a guide. Each region would need to demonstrate a 14-day decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations and take other steps.
Dutchess and Putnam officials have expressed concern that they would have to wait longer to open because they are part of the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council, along with Orange, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester counties.
In the Hudson Valley, per capita, Rockland has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases, at 35.8 per 1,000 residents, followed by Westchester (29.5), Orange (22.5), Dutchess (9.7), Putnam (9.5) and Ulster (7).
However, those figures closely follow the amount of testing: Westchester has tested 94 residents per 1,000, followed by Rockland (92.3), Orange (69.7), Dutchess (48.4), Ulster (43.4) and Putnam (39.5).
Molinaro said Dutchess has been working collectively with Orange and Ulster counties since the beginning of the pandemic and had lobbied to be grouped with them as the state uses data to make decisions, including about when and where restrictions should be eased.
He pointed to Cuomo’s announcement on Wednesday that Dutchess, Putnam, Sullivan and Ulster would be among 35 counties where hospitals would be allowed to resume elective procedures. Orange, Rockland and Westchester counties still have the restriction.
While the economic development councils represent “the basic framework” that the governor is using for reopening, “every day since announcing, he has made clear to us, privately and publicly, that Rockland and Westchester south is different than everything else north,” Molinaro said.
“If we’re making decisions based on data, and we ought to be, the data is significantly different [in Rockland and Westchester] and that has a lot to do with proximity to New York City and the dense nature of the population,” he said. “They’re going to have stricter restrictions longer.”
It’s that reality that has state Sen. Sue Serino and Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell also pushing to keep Putnam out of the group of “downstate” counties that must continue with stricter restrictions.
Serino, whose district includes the Highlands, said during a Tuesday (April 28) meeting of the Putnam County Business Council, held via Zoom, that “Putnam and Dutchess are in with the lower percentage as far as COVID [cases], so if you let science lead the way, like they should, we should not be lumped in with the other districts.”
Both she and Odell have been lobbying for a speedy reopening of businesses in Putnam County.
“We’ve got to get people back to work,” said Odell. “It’s not only about the business owner, it’s about the employees.”
Cuomo said that construction and manufacturing businesses would be the first allowed to open. Next would be businesses considered “more essential” with low risks of spreading infection within the workplace or to customers, followed by those deemed “less essential” or those that present a higher risk of spreading infection.
Each business that reopens must have a plan to protect its employees and consumers, and follow federal guidelines for protecting public health, the governor said. Also, regions must not open attractions or businesses that would draw a large number of visitors from outside the local area.
Odell said she’d like to initially focus on construction workers, including home improvement contractors and various other trades workers. “We have to push, push, push Albany to allow those individuals to get back to work,” she said.
Serino noted that roofers, surveyors and road maintenance crews can work outside, where it is easier to maintain social distancing. “Now’s the time they should be paving the road,” she said.
In the second phase, Odell said she’d like to see Main Street businesses be allowed to reopen. “There’s no reason they can’t open as long as they are following the proper guidance, like our grocery stores are following and our liquor stores are following,” she said.
While in-seat dining at restaurants will likely be part of a third phase, Odell said these establishments will probably only be able to operate at about 20 percent to 50 percent capacity. “We’re probably going to have to come up with some more innovative and creative ways to assist them with their takeout services and home delivery to keep them up and running,” she said.
Odell said that due to the prolonged shutdown, the county is expecting a $7 million to $10 million short-fall in sales tax revenue. “That’s a big hit,” she said. Dutchess County is also expecting a reduction of sales tax revenue, of between 10 percent and 25 percent, or $19 million to $40 million, Molinaro said.
While officials in Westchester County have discussed allowing residents to defer property tax payments, or reducing the interest charged on late payments, Odell said Putnam is not in a position to do that, citing contractual obligations to employees and vendors. “We cannot at this point in time have that conversation,” she said.
Serino said businesses should start planning their safety models so that, once the governor gives them the green light, they are ready to re-open.
State Assemblyman Kevin Byrne, whose district includes eastern Putnam, and who was also at the Tuesday meeting, said that when people again start venturing out, everyone will need to maintain best practices for public health.
“We’re not talking about going back to what we were living in October or November,” he said. “There are tons of folks who have underlying health issues that are still at risk. We can do this responsibly and safely. We’re not New York City; we don’t have the same limitations that New York City does.”
Holly Crocco contributed reporting.