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State relaxes unemployment benefit rules, weighs casino exception to large gatherings

ALBANY – Expecting a “large number of people” to be laid off in New York because of the spreading coronavirus and its impact on the economy, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state will relax its unemployment benefit rules.

The state’s present seven-day waiting period before weekly benefit checks can flow to unemployed workers will be lifted for people who lose their jobs due to the impact of the novel coronavirus or if they have become quarantined.

The state will also be banning utility companies from cutting off power to homes of individuals who have been affected by the virus, including those working fewer hours at companies that have cut back operations, such as many restaurants and other venues that as of Friday afternoon were on a mandatory order to scale back how many patrons can use their facilities at any one time.

State officials are growing increasingly worried about inadequate hospital capacity to accommodate an expected rise in coronavirus patients. Cuomo said the state “probably” will have to restrict elective surgeries at hospitals at some point.

As of Friday afternoon, the state has seen 421 known cases of coronavirus, 96 more than the previous day. Fifty of the individuals have been or are hospitalized. Thirteen are in intensive care units, which are the hospital facilities that officials say will have the hardest time trying to increase capacity to handle any rise in hospital admissions.

The governor’s order to reduce density of crowds in public spaces has generated a host of concerns in different sectors. The politically potent gambling industry spent Thursday and all day Friday working with Cuomo’s advisers on ways to exempt casino floors from the new requirement that bans crowds in public spaces with more than 500 people.

The casinos are unique because they have surfaces – such as slot machines – that must be touched over and over again by patrons, many of whom are older gamblers drawn to the brick-and-mortar gambling halls. When just slots are looked at – and not table games such as poker, or bingo rooms or sports betting lounges – New York’s casinos have 32,324 slot machines. Nearly 7,000 of those are at Western New York casinos, mostly those run by the Seneca Nation.

“That is something we’re talking about today because they’re very large," Cuomo said of the casino’s gambling spaces. Casino entertainment and restaurants are covered by the new restriction.

“We need a rule for super mass environment, right. We said 50% occupancy. But you have casinos that have an occupancy of 20,000 people," Cuomo said.

Melissa DeRosa, the secretary to the governor, added: “The other thing is that, important to remember with casinos, you’re not seated. It’s not a situation where you’re seated on top of each other for a prolonged period of time and, as the governor said, the capacity is massive."

The Seneca Nation said Friday evening it is canceling shows and doing more cleaning, but that its casino floors remain open without any new restrictions. It noted no coronavirus cases have yet been confirmed in Erie or Niagara counties.

A casino in Schenectady County, in advance of any actions by the Cuomo administration, announced it is limiting capacity on its gambling floors to 450 people at any one time and turning off every other slot machine and reducing seating capacity at table games.

On Friday night, the administration sent a directive to all casinos in New York: 500 bettors can be assembled on gaming floors at any one time and there has to be a new space created between those betting at slots and table games. It means a row of 10 slot machines will only have 5 devices activated, according to a source who confirmed the information. State regulators did not respond to a question on whether the Seneca Nation and other tribal casino operators will have to follow the rules imposed on commercial casinos and racetrack-based casinos, such as at Hamburg and Batavia.

State officials described the order as a "civil/regulatory directive" and, as such, it does not apply to the Seneca Nation or two other tribes – the Oneida Nation and St. Regis Mohawks – that operate casinos upstate. Officials said they are confident that the tribal-owned casinos will take the measures that are appropriate for them to protect workers and patrons.

Cuomo said no decision had been made on altering the work schedules of the state government. He has urged private companies to let employees work from home or to stagger work hour schedules to reduce density in office buildings at any one time.

In the most recent pay period, the state had 258,588 total employees, according to the state Comptroller’s Office.

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