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What Would a Shutdown Look Like in New York if COVID-19 Surged Again?

No matter the lockdown model, a range of business interests are already making the case directly and on a daily basis to the Cuomo administration that the state can ill afford the economic walloping New York took during the shutdowns this spring.

by Tom Precious, The Buffalo News, N.Y. / September 28, 2020
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a food shelf on April 14, 2020, in New York. (Scott Heins/Getty Images/TNS) TNS
(TNS) - In the scheme of things, New York State’s Covid-19 lockdown has been nowhere near as strict as places such as China or Bolivia. Or certainly Eritrea, the African nation whose military dictatorship has harshly carried out shutdown orders in what Oxford University researchers say has been the world’s toughest lockdown.
 
Yet, as New Yorkers worry about the prospects of a second wave of the pandemic, many business experts and some health experts say New York, perhaps, could be a bit more like Sweden.
 
Or maybe even a little bit like Japan, where starkly different societal and cultural norms made it so that Covid-19 restrictions were requested by government officials on a voluntary basis.
 
No matter the lockdown model, a range of business interests are already making the case directly and on a daily basis to the Cuomo administration that the state can ill afford the economic walloping New York took during the shutdowns this spring.
 
If Covid-19 rates spike again and an actual second wave does appear before a vaccine is widely available, these business leaders have been trying to convince Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that a second shutdown must be very different from the closure and workplace restrictions he first imposed in March.
 
Some believe many businesses forced to close in March should be able to remain open in a second shutdown. Or, perhaps, there should be clear, defined criteria – as is being done now on State University of New York college campuses – for what happens if Covid-19 hits a business or nearby area.
 
Some believe the state needs to be more nimble so that written closure or restriction orders are released when Cuomo floats them. That, they say, would avoid a problem seen last spring when lags occurred between Cuomo press briefings and when detailed executive orders or written guidelines were released.
 
Others believe the state needs to target any new shutdown orders based on more narrow geographic considerations, as seen in China in the winter and spring. That approach is also gaining favor in European countries now seeing new Covid-19 spikes.
 
Advance work
 
The Cuomo administration is preparing, officials say, for a second wave, taking measures such as directing health facilities to have 60 to 90 days' worth of personal protective equipment. Importantly, there are new and faster testing methods increasingly available that could be in the arsenal to keep Cuomo from having to pull the nuclear lever: a complete economic shutdown again of all but essential services.
 
“As we prepare for the fall flu season and the potential for a second wave of Covid, we continue to ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst,' " said Jason Conwall, a Cuomo spokesman.
 
“We will continue to follow a cautious, data-driven approach and continually urge New Yorkers to follow mask protocols, social distancing, hand washing and other measures that area our best guard against new cases."
 
The Cuomo administration last week was reluctant to talk specifics about how the governor might alter his approach if a second wave emerges.
 
But some health experts and business executives think the reaction to a second wave must be different than the spring approach or the state risks slipping deeper into an economic collapse.
 
“I don’t think we’d have to do anything near the mandatory reduction in force we saw in March and April," said Ken Pokalsky, vice president of the Business Council of New York State, a trade group that represents an array of corporate interests.
 
Some health experts, meanwhile, say that New Yorkers – employers and employees – have gotten considerably smarter about how to carry on during this pandemic.
 
“I don’t anticipate that we’ll have to use those more stringent shutdowns even if we get a bump in cases," said Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
 
The economic hit
 
In another strange twist of this pandemic’s course, it is possible that the state’s battered economy helped with things such as social distancing by the mere fact that so many people lost their jobs. In August, the state’s unemployment rate, while improved from earlier months, stood at 12.5%, or triple the level seen statewide in August 2019. In the United States as a whole, the August level was 8.5%, or double the level from a year earlier.
 
Only Rhode Island and Nevada had worse unemployment rates than New York last month. A number of states that saw sharply higher Covid-19 rates had lower unemployment numbers.
 
The leisure and hospitality sector, from restaurants to hotels and concert venues, has been hit hardest in New York in the raw number of jobs lost: down 403,200 jobs in August from a year earlier. That was followed by trade, transportation and the utilities sector, off 188,000 jobs. Professional and business services, which includes anything from architectural jobs to clerical work, was down 171,000 jobs.
 
Shutdown orders are still in effect for many sectors, such as movie theaters, concert halls and convention centers. In New York City, restaurants still are not able to allow indoor dining, a ban that will get lifted Sept. 30.
 
One obvious way to track the economic impact: sales tax receipts, a simple barometer of how much people are spending on various goods. In May, with the shutdown still in place across much of the state, local sales tax collections were off 32%. By August, with much of the state reopened, those tax receipts were down 8.2%, according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
 
Balancing economy and public health
 
All these numbers come into play as the state considers various models for restricting the economy if a second wave materializes. Business interests note one of the most important numbers: a lack of any broad resurgence of Covid-19 in New York since the economy began reopening in phases in May.
 
“I think it demonstrates businesses are taking safety very seriously for their customers, their employees and the community and that most consumer business interactions have not been shown to increase transmission risks," said Greg Biryla, director of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small businesses.
 
Biryla said the “arbitrary nature” of the first shutdown in the spring – in which, for instance, small retailers were shuttered but big box stores were allowed to remain open – is a key place to start as the Cuomo administration considers how to handle any additional shutdown orders.
 
“That is a lesson we learned through the initial phases of reopening that we’d be foolish to repeat," he said.
 
A key sector limps along
 
How to keep tourism sites open in any second wave will be a key challenge for upstate.
 
In Erie County, 41% of the tourism employment base has been lost since the pandemic hit, and hotel revenues are down $85 million, according to Visit Buffalo Niagara. Besides fewer jobs, it has meant fewer people spending money on restaurants and attractions, and that has meant less in the way of sales tax and room tax proceeds for local governments.
 
Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, said the strict state shutdown orders and the “more measured” reopening efforts helped mitigate the spread of Covid-19. But the hit on tourism and other economies has been deep, as witnessed by the ongoing closure of some attractions and hotels .
 
Businesses have been a key part of the recovery effort, Kaler noted, taking measures such as bolstering online ordering at restaurants and adding contactless check-in at hotels.
 
“I’d hope that we learned enough to know that we can mitigate this and continue to operate in some form rather than having to completely close down," he said.
 
Can New York look elsewhere?
 
Discussions about how New York might handle a second wave are based partly on assumptions and hopes. If Covid-19 infection rates return to anything like they were earlier this year, would Cuomo have any choice but to carry out another round of dramatic shutdowns?
 
That question comes as Covid-19 has reemerged in many places around the world. In the United Kingdom, pubs and restaurants have faced early closure orders as a second wave takes hold. New restrictions are in place in Israel. Portugal, Spain, France, Poland and the Netherlands are seeing new spikes, as is India.
 
Cuomo has raised cautions about the upcoming months, especially with many schools resuming in-person education, colleges in session and the coming flu season.
 
“We’re entering the fall and the fall is going to bring a new set of challenges and we have to be aware of it and we have to adapt our management and our priorities to the new realities," Cuomo told reporters in Manhattan last week.
 
Cuomo said he would “considering closing things” in New York if “we get into real trouble” with Covid-19 infection rates. He did not elaborate.
 
Russo, the infectious disease expert in Buffalo, said he believes it is “likely” there will be a bump in Covid-19 cases in the colder months. Since last spring, though, the understanding of the virus, both from scientists and the public, has expanded greatly, so that there is a greater knowledge of how to contain its spread.
 
A narrow approach
 
Some states, such as Vermont, burrow down to the county level when determining which travelers from other states can cross their borders without having to quarantine. In New York, shutdown and reopening orders were based on 10 regions of the state that were formed more than a decade ago for use in handing out economic development grants .
 
Russo said it is “not unreasonable” for state officials to consider Covid-19 caseloads on a county level. Such a route might spare counties that had lower Covid-19 caseloads – such as more rural areas in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties – from having to broadly close down just because they were grouped with a county, such as Erie, where case levels were higher.
 
The regions are big, with varying demographics, economies, housing stocks and transportation availability. The Western New York Covid-19 zone, for instance, stretches across 6,223 square miles. In the North Country, Covid-19 decisions have been made over a sprawling zone that is nearly the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.
 
“We could have gone a bit more granular at the county level," Russo said.
 
He raised cautions, however. Ventilation is still one issue. Most larger businesses or stores have good ventilation to help reduce the Covid-19 spread. But smaller stores, for instance, might not.
 
“Businesses and venues where people can’t wear masks at all times are the ones that are concerning to me," Russo said.
 
Those would, of course, include restaurants, which could find themselves among the earliest to face new restrictions in a second wave.
 
As for music and large sports venues, Russo offers a simple idea to keep in place until a vaccine is readily available: “Just take a pass.”
 
“We just need to buy some time and tread some water until we get on the other side of this," he added.
 
Voluntary versus mandatory approaches
 
Unknown in a second wave is whether Cuomo will maintain his policy to threaten fines and civil court actions against violators of public safety rules. He said he would fine travelers from high Covid-19 states who don’t quarantine upon entering New York. Colleges have kicked out students for partying. Bars and restaurants that violated reopening rules have been slapped with fines and suspension of liquor licenses. He set a $1,000 fine for social distancing violations and created fines for businesses that violated orders to keep nonessential workers at home.
 
“You don’t have the right to risk someone else’s life," Cuomo said in April.
 
Cuomo isn’t ready to embrace the Japanese model, where a state of emergency was declared this year, but various safety measures were made voluntary and citizens largely complied with them.
 
“Our results suggest that what is necessary to contain the spread of Covid-19 is not strong, legally binding measures, but the provision of appropriate information that encourages people to change their behavior," two university professors from Japan wrote this month in the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research.
 
For large and small companies in New York that didn’t go broke under the weight of the first Covid-19 round, how Cuomo handles any second wave will be crucial.
 
Pokalsky, the Business Council vice president, believes the Cuomo administration has come far in its understanding, for instance, of activities that do and don’t spread the virus.
 
"Even if we did have to make a pivot based on a significant recurrence," he said, "we know a lot more of what works and doesn’t work.”
 
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©2020 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)
 
Visit The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) at www.buffalonews.com
 
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