At least five New York regions are gearing up to begin the second phase of the state's reopening process, but the timeline remains cloudy
ALBANY — New York is set to further ease coronavirus restrictions across much of the state as soon as later this week, allowing retail establishments to open their doors to customers for the first time since mid-March.
Five New York regions are expected to soon enter the second of four reopening phases laid out by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with hair stylists, barbers and real-estate agents among those who will get the green light to return to work.
The second phase promises to get more people out of their homes and into various stores and shops, a major test for the state that has been ravaged by more than 23,000 deaths at the hand of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
But so far, business owners have gotten little guidance from the state when it comes to exactly who will be in line to open and what kind of across-the-board restrictions will remain in place, such as possible capacity reductions for retail stores.
And Cuomo hasn't set an exact date for some regions to begin the second phase, though Friday marks two weeks since five regions began phase one, which the Democratic governor had originally laid out as a key benchmark.
"The state will be releasing detailed updates on what industries and businesses are included in each phase as soon as possible," said Kristin Devoe, a spokeswoman for Empire State Development, the state's business-focused branch.
"As with businesses that were allowed to reopen during phase one, businesses allowed to reopen during phase two will similarly be subject to forthcoming health guidance."
Here's what we know about phase two as of Wednesday:
When does phase two begin?
As of Wednesday, Cuomo hasn't set an exact date that the eligible regions can begin the second phase.
When Cuomo first laid out his reopening plan, he said he wanted to allow at least two weeks in between phases to account for an incubation cycle of the coronavirus.
That would mean Friday is the earliest date the first five regions can begin the second phase.
In recent days, however, Cuomo and his top aides have allowed for more flexibility.
"We said two weeks between phases," Cuomo said Tuesday. "That’s a rule of thumb. There is no magic or science to that, that isn’t a hard-and-fast number … but if you see no increase in any of the numbers could you accelerate that, yes."
Robert Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, said he is anticipating guidance from the state in the coming days.
Duffy, Cuomo's former lieutenant governor, chairs the Finger Lakes Regional Control Room, a panel of local leaders tasked with monitoring regional coronavirus data for the state.
"We think we'll have the announcement at some time this week from the governor," said Duffy.
"We're moving along. So far, we have not seen any spike from construction or manufacturing or retail with curbside pickup. It's pretty much been localized from nursing homes."
Which regions are in line to begin phase two?
New York's reopening process is being carried out on a regional basis. Each of the state's 10 economic-development regions are on their own clock.
Five of those regions began phase one of the reopening process May 15 and will be the first in line for the second phase, assuming there is no last-minute virus spike.
– Central New York (Cayuga, Cortland, Madison, Onondaga and Oswego counties)
– Finger Lakes (Genesee, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Orleans, Seneca, Wayne, Wyoming and Yates counties)
– Mohawk Valley (Fulton, Herkimer, Montgomery, Oneida, Otsego and Schoharie counties)
– North Country (Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties)
– Southern Tier ( Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Delaware, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga and Tompkins counties)
Two other regions — Western New York (home to Buffalo) and the Capital Region (home to Albany — started phase one on May 19 and May 20, respectively, and would be next in line.
The Mid-Hudson region just started phase one on Tuesday, while Long Island started Wednesday. New York City is expected to begin in early June.
What businesses open in phase two?
There will be four industries allowed to reopen in the second phase, according to Cuomo's administration:
– Professional Services
– Administrative Support
– Real Estate / Rental & Leasing
That's in addition to any essential businesses (which have remained open the whole time) and the industries that were allowed to reopen in phase one, which were largely limited to construction and manufacturing.
So far, the state hasn't gotten any more specific regarding which businesses fall into the phase two categories.
Empire State Development launched an online tool that allows business owners to look up their specific business type, but it only says whether a business is currently allowed to open its doors — not when it will be able to in the future.
But in general, professional services include accountants, lawyers, engineers and the like.
Retail stores, meanwhile, were allowed to open for curbside or in-store pickup only during the first phase.
That will be expanded in the second phase to allow people to shop in the store, but each shop must have specific plans in place to reduce density and allow for social distancing.
What about hair stylists, nail salons and barbers?
Salons and barber shops will be able to reopen in phase two, according to Cuomo, but they will have to have strict social distancing and density-reduction measures in place.
What does that mean? The state hasn't offered any official guidance to hair and nail salons yet, though that is expected to come Thursday, according to the New York State Association of Salon & Spa Professionals.
Most salons and barber shops have already been putting their plans in place, however.
Duffy said he's seen plans that will have hair stylists and customers wearing masks. Each station could be separated by plexiglass or increased distance. Waiting room capacity could be reduced, if not eliminated entirely.
Joy Donaghey, a hair stylist at the Richard Scott Salon and Day Spa in Mount Kisco, Westchester County, said hair professionals are looking for clear guidance from the state.
Donaghey still has time — the Mid-Hudson region's phase two opening is a ways off. But time is running short for many of her peers in upstate regions that could open in the coming days.
"It's really just a guessing game for all of us," she said Tuesday. "If you're not specifying how it's going to be for certain industries, it makes (reopening) difficult."
What could stop a region from entering phase two?
Cuomo's administration laid out a series of seven COVID-19 metrics a region had to hit to begin the first phase of the reopening process. They included various measures that tracked the hospitalization rate and capacity in each region, as well as testing capacity and a required level of contact tracers.
But the state's rationale for allowing a region to enter the second, third or fourth phases of the process has not been as clearly defined.
Cuomo on Tuesday said it's more of a "judgment call."
In general, he and his top aides have said they are examining more "real-time" statistics and data before allowing a region to move on to phase two. That includes the rate of positive COVID-19 diagnostic tests and the number of new hospitalizations.
That would seem to benefit the Finger Lakes and Mohawk Valley, which are at or near their highest number of current COVID hospitalizations — aided in part by a change in state policy that has seen hospitals keep COVID-positive nursing home patients longer — but have seen their positive test percentage decline steadily.
Since May 15, the Finger Lakes region has seen 3.5% of tests come back positive, compared to 5.6% since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in March, according to state data.
In the Mohawk Valley, the positive test rate has been 2.5% since May 15 and 5.4% since the beginning of March.
Those numbers have been affected in some part by a significant increase in testing statewide in recent weeks.
The North Country and Southern Tier, meanwhile, have consistently had some of the lowest coronavirus hospitalization rates in the state.
"Our numbers continue to look good," said Binghamton Mayor Rich David, a member of the Southern Tier Regional Control Room.
"The only issues right now in Broome County are a couple hotspots in nursing homes and senior-care facilities, but outside of those our numbers across the board are very good compared to all of upstate."