Robert Duffy, president of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce

ROCHESTER - Bob Duffy spoke Tuesday of the need to strike a balance between allowing businesses in the Finger Lakes region to re-open while at the same time understanding that public health considerations do, and will continue, to outweigh economic ones.

Duffy, president and CEO of the greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, was named Tuesday as a special advisor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on when to begin reopening businesses in the nine-county region. Many have been forced to adjust hours and operations, lay off staff or even close outright in response to executive orders designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We’re in a season right now where the livelihood of many families depends on whether they can work or not and reopen their business – that is critically important,” said Duffy. “But it has to be balanced with the public health issue. We do not want to raise the infection rate. We do not want to lose any more lives.”

In coming days and weeks, Duffy said he’ll be working alongside Vinnie Esposito, the Finger Lakes regional director for Empire State Development, the state’s economic development office, and SUNY Geneseo President Denise Battles, his new co-chair of the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council. Battles was appointed to the position earlier this month.

In an April 23 statement, Battles acknowledged the “central role” the regional economic development council plays in supporting the economic vitality of the region.

“The Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council and for that matter, all of the state’s REDCs, have an ever-more crucial part to play in advancing the continued growth and development of our state’s economy as New York navigates the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “I look forward to partnering with Regional Director Vinnie Esposito, Co-Chair Duffy, and all members of the Council to achieve the (council’s) aims, particularly during this challenging time.”

Duffy said he’ll be focused on gathering input from as many public health leaders, elected officials and business leaders as possible so that he can convey an accurate picture of the region to Cuomo, who will have ultimate say on if and when to allow businesses to re-open.

“Every county has to have input, from our big corporations to our… mom and pop shops. They are all important, they all benefit our economy,” Duffy said. “These decisions cannot be done emotionally. They must be done by data.”

Cuomo’s called for a regional approach to re-opening the state’s economy during a Tuesday morning press briefing.

“Just like some states will reopen before other states because they have a different circumstance when it comes to COVID and their status with COVID, it’s also true across the state,” he said. “North Country has a totally different situation than New York City. Central New York has a different situation. We operate as one state but we also have to understand variations and you do want to get this economy open as soon as possible...”

Cuomo’s statements Tuesday followed the release last week by state Republican lawmakers of the Restarting New York plan, which called for the re-opening of the state’s economy of a regional basis, using the state’s 10 existing Regional Economic Development Council zones as a template.

The Finger Lakes region spans Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Orleans, Ontario, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates counties.

State Sen. George Borrello, whose 57th Senate District includes parts of Livingston County, unveiled the plan April 16 alongside Assemblyman Andy Goodell, a Republican from Jamestown, Chautauqua County. In a statement, Borrello cited the “huge gap” between infection rates in New York City and areas of Upstate New York in arguing in favor of the regional re-opening approach.

To do otherwise, said Borrello, would be to condemn Upstate small businesses to almost certain failure.

“An economic crisis has been unfolding alongside our public health emergency,” he said. “The shuttering of our businesses has resulted in staggering job losses – 1.2 million residents filed for unemployment over the past five weeks, four times the total number of jobs lost during the Great Recession of 2008.”

Borrello said he was “glad to hear” Cuomo embrace the idea of a regional approach during his Tuesday morning press briefing and that he and Goodell were looking forward to sharing their ideas with Duffy and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who Cuomo appointed as his advisor for Western New York

“While no one expects to go back to the same practices that existed prior to this pandemic, we can carefully and safely begin to restart our economy upstate, which benefits all New Yorkers,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Borrello and his wife own Cabana Sam’s, a bar and restaurant on the shores of Lake Erie. The restaurant is currently closed due to the pandemic.

Also last week, Assembly Republicans released a second plan that, like Borrello’s and Goodell’s, would allow for a regional approach to re-opening the state’s economy. In what GOP legislators dubbed the “New York State Regional Restart,” a group of economic development and health care experts would be impaneled to come up with a plan to start reopening businesses no later than April 30. Restart plans would be based on regions’ levels of infection and of population density, said Assemblyman Steve Hawley, R-Batavia, a proponent of the plan.

According to Hawley, the restart plan would include, among other things, the re-evaluation of which businesses could operate while following social distancing protocols; extending and/or waiving state regulations for an additional year; suspending fees for occupational licenses for one year following the emergency period; increasing rural internet accessibility to ensure equal access to telehealth and online learning.

“The proposal I am making is that starting April 30, the state government should begin to allow more leniency in its lockdown rules where it can be allowed, particularly in districts and counties where the number of cases is not as high,” Hawley said in a statement Monday. “The goal is to slowly reopen society, beginning with 25 percent of employees returning to what was determined as non-essential work, and gradually increasing that number over the course of two-week periods. This strategy aims to follow social distancing guidelines and public health guidelines while at the same time getting ahead of helping people to return to work and jump-start the economy.”

To read more about Assembly Republicans’ “New York State Regional Restart” plan, click here.

Tempering expectations

During his Tuesday afternoon presser, Duffy sought to tamp down expectations that things will return to a pre-COVID-19 normal on May 15 – the day Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “New York State on PAUSE” executive order is set to expire – or anytime soon thereafter. To read more about the order, click here.

“That is not going to happen,” he said Duffy. “We’re going to be in this mode for many months, if not a year or so to come. This virus does not get up and leave on May 15...”

Instead, Duffy suggested businesses would be allowed to re-open gradually and with restrictions intended to limit human density.

“There are stores right now who limit the number of customers or people who can come in. Grocery stores, essential businesses are doing things right now,” he said. “You go into a grocery store, you wear a mask, you wear gloves. We’re going to balance, really, the opportunity to do it safely.”

Some types of businesses would likely be allowed to re-open sooner than others, said Duffy.

“Construction, house painting – there’s a lot of things that can be done where you are six, eight, 20, 40 feet apart,” he said. “You can wear masks, there’s ways you can protect yourself.”

Duffy said there’s no solid time table on when a re-opening will begin or even when to report his findings to the governor.

“If I can get recommendations to him in a matter of days, I will do that,” he said.

Laura Lane, president and CEO of the Livingston County Area Chamber of Commerce, stressed Tuesday that the piecemeal re-opening of some businesses will not be a silver bullet for the county’s ailing economy.

As the County News previously reported, 2,334 previously employed Livingston County residents filed for unemployment during the last week of March and first week of April – a nearly 1,700-percent increase over the 125 that filed during the same two-week period last year.

“Everything about this is unprecedented and will take an all hands on deck approach as we all work to support not only the initial re-opening, but the continued support of local businesses throughout Livingston County,” said Lane in an email Tuesday. “More than ever, the importance of shopping local and doing business local cannot be under-estimated. It is going to take everyone in our communities supporting local businesses to help rise the tide and drive our local economy.”

Lane echoed Duffy’s call for patience, saying the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the region’s economy is more likely to be felt for months and years as opposed to days and weeks.

“The full economic impact of COVID-19 is hard to pinpoint as the ripple effects will be felt for months,” she said. “Therefore the recovery will take even longer.”

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