New York Regions Begin Phase 2 Reopening, But Not Without Confusion and Frustration

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Undoubtedly, the novel coronavirus has impacted the economy on both national and local levels. Since March, the state of New York has been on pause except for businesses deemed essential. In early May, businesses designated within “phase one” were permitted to reopen. But while Governor Cuomo maintained that officials would be keeping a close eye on COVID-19 case confirmations and hospitalizations, many businesses expected to be included in “phase two” and expected to be permitted to reopen in late May. However, given a lack of transparency and ever-changing information, the state’s phase two reopening was muddied with much confusion — and was delayed by a day.

The novel coronavirus has a high rate of transmission and has been associated with some serious symptoms. Although individuals over the age of 65 are among the most vulnerable for complications from both the flu and COVID-19, it’s clear from current fatality counts and both anecdotal and medical evidence that this disease is far more serious than influenza. As of now, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has calculated the national death toll at more than 104,000 with more than 1.78 million confirmed cases. In New York State alone, over 370,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and just short of 24,000 residents have died as a result of the virus.

Back in March, Governor Cuomo enacted an executive order (dubbed “NY on PAUSE”) to close 100% of non-essential businesses statewide and to ban all non-essential gatherings until further notice. That order was extended from May 15 to May 28, while a state of emergency continues until at least June 13 for regions that have yet to meet criteria for reopening. However, five out of 10 New York State regions were permitted to start reopening select businesses with restrictions as of mid-May. Those businesses included those in the construction, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and manufacturing sectors. And while consumers spent an estimated $517 billion online with U.S. merchants in 2018, manufacturers and retailers were also permitted to reopen in phase one (though they were only allowed to offer curbside or in-store pickup and drop-off).

Although Gov. Cuomo cautioned that an increase in hospitalizations or other COVID-related concerns could delay the next phase of reopening, many business owners were preparing to reopen two weeks after the first opening phase commenced. The problem? The state failed to clarify exactly which businesses would be included in phase two — and the governor refused to give a definitive answer about whether or not there might be a delay until several local officials had already held press conferences.

Initially, state officials had noted that the five regions would be able to enter phase two of reopening on the morning of Friday, May 29. However, Governor Cuomo stated on Thursday afternoon that might not be the case after all, prompting county leaders to express frustration over the lack of communication and clarity. The lack of official guidance from the governor’s office caused confusion amongst both New York business owners and lawmakers alike.

Fortunately for many involved, the governor’s delay in beginning phase two was short-lived. The green light came about 13 hours later than expected, but at least it was given. That said, not every business expected to be included in this second stage was permittted to open. Offices, real estate businesses, in-store retail, vehicle sales and rentals, commercial building management businesses, and hair salons were allowed to reopen their doors.

The reopening is not without restrictions for these businesses, as barber shops are not allowed to trim customers’ beards and offerings like nail services, eyebrow threading and waxing, facials, and cosmetic application are not allowed for the time being. And while some area malls had expected to be given the go-ahead, indoor shopping malls are required to remain closed. Since only 33% of retailers have the mobile technology to show consumers available inventory online, the continued closure of shopping centers may have drastic consequences. The same can be said, however, of allowing a large number of consumers to gather in close quarters.

Dental offices were also initially kept off the list of permitted businesses, but Governor Cuomo clarified that dentists can reopen starting on Monday, June 1. Of course, all reopening businesses must develop a reopening plan and follow health guidance from the state.

As of now, nine out of 10 New York regions have met the criteria for reopening. Not surprisingly, New York City’s high infection rate makes it the state’s one holdout. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has predicted that their reopening won’t start to roll out until at least mid-June. But for now, upstate is leading the way. Whether the final two phases will proceed as planned remains to be seen.