WARSAW — As the area slowly begins to process Phase 1 of its reopening, area health and business officials have a big concern: Don’t blow it.
Former Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy in particular expressed worries that as businesses reopen and warm weather approaches, people will stop following COVID-19 safety precautions. He fears it will drive the infection rate upward and slow the region’s reopenings.
Wyoming County officials shared similar concerns during an update conducted remotely with 95 business owners and staff.
“Our issue is that as we reopened at Phase I, on Friday, our numbers were very, very close, because we had two surges with infections in Monroe and Ontario counties,” said Duffy, who now heads the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and is coordinating the Finger Lakes Region’s reopening. “The thought is infections go up if we don’t adhere to the practices that we reinforced going back several weeks. We do not want to see a spike of infections, where the opening we are having slow down, and the upcoming phases are slowed down.”
In Wyoming County, officials updated business owners on the complex prospect of reopening. It involves employee and customer protection, masks, disinfection protocols, employee monitoring, and similar factors.
The reopening phases are based on factors such as infection rates and available hospital beds. If any of those fall out of proportion in a region, the reopenings would be delayed.
“As we commence reopening and hopefully move through these phases, the attentiveness of our residents and the businesses to this process, to maintain some of the standards and good practices we need, is going to help us move forward,” said Public Health Administrator Laura Paolucci.
Each business will be obligated to create a plan on how to move forward, officials said. They can use templates provided by the state to explain in detail their reopening plans.
Businesses can currently decide for themselves whether to allow customers who aren’t wearing face coverings, said Director Steve Perkins of the county’s Environmental Health department. But he believes masks will be ultimately required at close-contact businesses such as barbershops and hairdressers.
A lot of those factors still haven’t been released by the state.
“I would expect it though, when you look at the nature of a business where you’re very close,” Perkins said. “When you look at barbers and dentists, any of those businesses where you’re right in the face of an individual. I think it’s going to be required in some manner. I haven’t seen that, but my gut feeling is you will see that coming as a part of your reopening plans.”
He believes many customers will want those levels of protection regardless — and barbers, hairdressers and nail salons are part of Phase 2, which could be as soon as two weeks.
“Keep in mind it’s not going to go back to the way it was two or three months ago,” Perkins said. “It’s going to be a version of that, but keep in mind it’s going to be a modified version.”
He also advised businesses to consider the kind of equipment they have.
He suggested considering plastic chairs, which are easier to disinfect than porous cloth materials. Magazines set out for the public also aren’t likely to be part of a reopening, since they can’t be disinfected.
Such issues still raised issues for business owners, including employee privacy and business liability.
Masks remained among the biggest questions for the businesses, such as if a customer refused to wear a mask.
Paolucci said she believes more will be known in a week. She said Wyoming County residents have done a “stand up” job so far, and officials would like that to continue for all residents, and especially the most vulnerable.
Legally, businesses could simply point out the executive order requiring masks or six-foot distancing, but the state currently doesn’t offer any guidance beyond that.
Business owners are also asking whether the county will release “best practices” regarding cleaning and disinfection. Perkins recommended they follow guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control, the state Department of Health, and the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
Even though the region is opening, social gatherings are still limited, and businesses which reopen will need to adhere to occupancy guidelines.
“It should not create a false sense of security by saying one region is reopen and the other is not open,” said Public Health Director Dr. Gregory Collins. “That does not mean that you’re any less likely to get sick in one area or the other ... It really comes down to us as individuals doing the right thing.”
That includes wearing masks, following good handwashing, and avoiding large gatherings, while adhering to safe business practices.
In his separate conference later Monday afternoon, Duffy stressed that it’s not time to say everything’s back to normal, plan parties and do away with masks. He said Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been very clear that if infection rates rise, reopenings will slow.
He said businesses want to get to Phases 2, 3 and 4, and they don’t want to be slowed down.
Duffy said the precautions aren’t an issue of freedom, but personal responsibility. He said people have by-and-large done a good job so far of adhering to the safety measures and precautions.
He said enforcement isn’t wanted, but voluntary compliance is. He said he understands the frustrations of closed businesses, no haircuts, no gym, unemployment, and stress and anxiety.
“People are really tired and fatigued with this, but we’re too close to stop now,” he said. “ ... We want to get through it. We don’t want to take a step backward. We’re just asking for voluntary compliance.”