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Panel members: It could be weeks until Long Island businesses reopen

More than 100 children and teenagers across the state have been affected by the COVID-19-related illness. Newsday's Steve Langford has the story, along with more on how soon the region might be able to reopen. Credit: Newsday staff; Facebook / Governor Andrew Cuomo

This story was reported by Rachelle Blidner, Robert Brodsky, Catherine Carrera, Matthew Chayes, Scott Eidler, Bart Jones and David Reich-Hale. It was written by Jones.

Despite mounting pressure to reopen a Long Island economy pummeled by the coronavirus crisis, the region may still be weeks away from seeing business closings lifted, members of a state advisory board said Wednesday.

Their assessment came as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he does not know if SUNY colleges will open in September for in-person classes, with the ongoing closure of schools and college facilities remaining a significant hurdle to returning to a sense of normalcy.

Members of the advisory board said it is unclear when Nassau and Suffolk will join four upstate regions in getting the green light to reopen manufacturing, construction and curbside retail pickup. Those are the limited activities permitted in the first phase of Cuomo's reopening plan to get a battered economy up and running again amid near-record unemployment.

“We are a couple weeks away, but I do see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, the Long Island region’s largest business group.

Nassau and Suffolk counties have not met two of seven public health metrics — hospitalizations and a 14-day decline in hospital deaths — that would allow the first reopening phase to start. There are a total of four phases, with activities such as entertainment and schools opening last.

Law and two other members of the New York Forward Reopening Advisory Board made their comments in a Newsday-sponsored webinar Wednesday, where they discussed strategies for restarting the economy while preserving public health.

The forum came as Nassau County surpassed 2,000 deaths from COVID-19.

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Law is lobbying to get the state to declare more businesses “essential,” which would allow them to open before Phase One is approved for Long Island. They could include residential construction, interior and exterior home remodeling, solar installation and pet groomers.

Law is a member of another smaller "regional control room" appointed to help decide how Long Island reopens — and to monitor health measures to see if the region's return needs to be pulled back if coronavirus indicators spike.

A fourth region, the North Country, was approved Wednesday to partially reopen Friday, when the governor's NY Pause order expires. Three other upstate regions had met the guidelines earlier this week.

Cuomo said Long Island is close to meeting the benchmarks. Long Island will be considered a single region, with performance on key metrics averaged between Nassau and Suffolk, Law said.

Regions that enter the first phase, under state guidelines, will be able to allow construction, manufacturing and wholesale supply chain, along with retail stores for curbside pickup and drop-off or in-store pickup. Agriculture, forestry and fishing also will be permitted.

On Long Island, the "Control Room" appointees are the two county executives, Laura Curran of Nassau and Steve Bellone of Suffolk, as well as Law; John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO; Eric Gertler, president and CEO of Empire State Development; and Tracey Edwards, Long Island director of the NAACP.

Curran said Wednesday that the Long Island region is getting close to reaching 2 per 100,000 residents being admitted to hospitals for COVID-19, a benchmark rate toward reopening that has been improving for both counties. 

“We are really going in the right direction,” Curran said.

Cuomo said Wednesday that local leaders will have to carefully watch the numbers for new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations from COVID-19 and the overall rate of transmission to see if they are reopening "too soon."

“If you watch those rates, you’ll know how soon the virus is spreading,” he said, and it has to be watched “in every county, in every region.”

The 'new abnormal'

Nassau and Suffolk have a total of 105,000 businesses, Law said. About 93,000 of them have 20 or fewer employees. The remaining 12,000 companies employ the rest of the workforce.

Scott Rechler, chairman and chief executive of RXR Realty LLC said when local businesses reopen, they will need to adjust to a “new abnormal.”

For example, Rechler said he is encouraging tenants of his properties to stagger their hours and days of operation, potentially operating at 20% to 25% capacity to reduce potential exposure to the virus. Elevators will have to be used on a limited capacity as well, marking designated standing positions, while masks will be mandated in all public spaces, Rechler said.

Some larger buildings, he said, will have a wellness concierge to help guide people, while thermal scanners will read temperatures of people walking into the building to determine if they have a fever, he said.

“The message is we all need to be innovative and think about how we have to re-imagine our business,” Rechler said. “We need to open businesses clearly, but it’s not going to be business as usual.”

Theresa Sanders, president of the Urban League of Long Island, a civil rights advocacy group, said business owners can take multiple steps to prepare. They include performing wellness checks with employees, checking if vendors are still operating and reaching out to other small businesses to see if their plans for reopening can be replicated.

“The biggest challenge is not to be intimidated by this,” she said. “If you are a business owner, you’ve got to be brave if you want to survive this.”

Return to 'low-risk' activities

Curran said officials had looked for any potential spike in COVID-19 cases due to more people going outside when the weather improved recently, but did not find it.

“It means people really can handle their freedom,” she said. “It is making the difference.”

Curran said she is looking forward to playing tennis Friday, as that sport will be among outdoor activities allowed again as part of the partial return to low-risk business and recreational activities that starts Friday. “I’ve been trying to get better at tennis for about 35 years. Haven’t gotten there yet, but I’ll get a chance to practice again Friday, after work.”

Other activities allowed starting Friday will be landscaping and gardening work, some outdoor sports and drive-in movie theaters.

Bellone on Wednesday declined to say whether he would want to wait for hospitals in the county to have a 90-day supply of personal protective equipment — a state recommendation but not a requirement — before reopening the economy.

“Given what we’ve been through, it’s hard to argue that having a supply on hand” would not be important for reopening, Bellone said.

The county distributed 220,000 PPE on Tuesday, mainly to nursing homes and adult care facilities, he said.

Suffolk needs 450 contact tracers to meet one of the state-mandated metrics, but has only 230, he said. They are county employees who worked elsewhere but were trained to do contact tracing. Some have shifted back to their normal work, but the county is “gearing them back up into a full-scale contact tracing effort,” Bellone said.

Colleges' September return in question

Meanwhile, Cuomo said he is not sure whether public colleges and universities will be open for regular in-person classes in September.

The California State University System, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, announced Tuesday it is canceling nearly all in-person classes for the fall semester. Cuomo said he has not decided yet what he will do with the State University of New York, which includes Stony Brook University and SUNY Old Westbury on Long Island.

“The situation changes so fast and the facts change and assumptions change and everything changes,” Cuomo said Wednesday at his daily coronavirus news briefing. “Where are we going to be in September? I don’t know. I don’t know where we are going to be in August. I’m trying to figure out June.”

He added: “I understand schools need a lead time and they need to plan … We’ve told our schools [to] plan on how you will reopen for the new normal.”

Cuomo said the complexities of opening colleges include issues such as a lecture hall class scheduled to have 300 students that may now only be allowed to have 75, for social distancing.

“How do you run courses now with not having a gathering of students?” he said. “How do you have a cafeteria without a gathering of students?"

Calvin O. Butts, III, president of SUNY Old Westbury, praised Cuomo for "taking a measured approach" while acknowledging the difficulties educational institutions face.

"The health and safety of our students as they pursue their studies is a vital concern," Butts said in a statement. "Our hope is to have face-to-face instruction for our students, even if that means we do so less frequently than we might ordinarily through blended learning practices and other alternatives. Education is so important, and it's hard to think that traditional instruction might not be possible."

Cuomo did not mention private colleges and universities on Wednesday, though their officials were also waiting to hear from the state. The head of one private college on Long Island said they are preparing for either a normal opening or a partial shutdown.

“If we have to teach our classes remotely or on-ground, we will be ready,” said Don Boomgaarden, president of St. Joseph’s College, which has campuses in Patchogue and Brooklyn. 

The college started a committee a few weeks ago to develop different plans for the fall semester — in case Cuomo permits only remote classes, he said. 

“We have to wait to be sure we’re following state regulations, but once we know what they are, we’ll be ready to implement one of those plans,” Boomgaarden said. “Of course, we would much prefer to be able to offer our on-ground courses, but if not, we’ll do them remotely.”

Cuomo also has not announced what he will decide for high schools, middle schools and elementary schools for September. He has canceled the rest of the current academic year running through June. Students have not been able to attend school since NY Pause went into effect, meaning students will lose three months of in-class instruction — something many parents and educators consider devastating.

Concerns about children

He said concern continues to grow about an illness known as pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome that is found in children and is believed to be caused by the coronavirus, as the number of suspected cases grew to 102, with three related deaths recorded.

“As a parent I can tell you, this is a parent’s worst nightmare," said Cuomo, speaking from Jefferson Community College in upstate Watertown. “First job is to protect our children.”

New York is leading an effort to try to understand the condition, which causes damage to blood vessels and presents as "more of a cardiac case than a respiratory case," Cuomo said. The state on Monday issued an alert sent to all the other 49 state health departments in the United States, and New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker hosted a conference call with his counterparts across the country.

Cases of the inflammatory syndrome have been identified in 14 other states, including neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as five European countries.

Meanwhile, new antibody testing showed many essential workers such as health care workers and police have lower coronavirus infection rates than the general population, Cuomo said.

“The essential workers we owe," Cuomo said. “I'm glad the results we see show that we did what we had to do to protect them."

Cuomo reported that most coronavirus health indicators continued to head in the right direction, with total hospitalizations and intubations down.

There were 166 new deaths from the virus, the third straight day the figure was below 200, and down from a peak of nearly 800 a month ago.

Nassau County reported 13 new deaths, for a total of 2,004. Suffolk reported 26 new deaths, for a total of 1,680. New York City reported 81 new deaths, for a total of 14,881.

The number of new COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals was 416, the third straight day the figure fell below 500 and a sharp drop from the peak of about 3,200. The total number of COVID-19 patients recorded in hospitals, 6,946, marked the first time in weeks that figure was below 7,000, and was far below the peak of nearly 19,000.

Overall, Cuomo said, “When you look at where we are today, we are just about where we were when we started this terrible situation. We have hopefully come through the worst. We paid a heck of a price for it, but we’ve come through the worst.”

Nassau reported 153 new coronavirus cases, for a total of 38,587, according to state figures. Suffolk reported 243 new cases, for a total of 37,305. New York City reported 1,127 new cases, for a total of 187,250. New York State as a whole added 2,176 new cases, for a total of 340,661.

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