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Cuomo eyes different strategy to reopen upstate, downstate regions

Covid-19 has hit downstate harder than upstate and officials will take this into account as they prepare to reopen once the pandemic eases its grip on New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Saturday.

The governor said the coronavirus crisis has played out differently across New York and that means the state will take a different approach to restarting the economy and easing restrictions on daily life.

However, he cautioned it must be a coordinated plan that doesn't prompt residents of still-shuttered communities to flood into areas that have begun to reopen.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. We are barely, in this part of the world, barely stabilizing our public health system now. That doesn't mean happy days are here again," Cuomo said during a Saturday morning briefing in Albany. "We are not at a point where we are going to be opening anything immediately."

Confer Plastics in North Tonawanda was forced to lay off 170 workers when the shutdown went into effect last month. President Bob Confer is eager to get the factory back to work.

To do that, it will take trust on the part of both employers and the governor, he said.

The governor has to trust employees to open "safely and cautiously in ways that protect employees and customers alike," Confer said. At the same time, employers must trust state and local officials when they pass down health and other policy guidelines.

"It's no different than what we do every day in the workplace," Confer said, adding later, "Protecting people is old hat for businesses and governments alike. It's what we all do."

As far as having separate game plans for New York City and the rest of the state, Confer thinks it's the only thing that makes sense.

Confer feels that lumping Western New York together with New York City caused schools and businesses here to close too early, costing them time they could have spent preparing for the shutdown.

"I would hope different regions looking healthier can start or gradually start at different times. The people and the state deserve that," Confer said.

Retailer Leanne Powers has a second round of commercial rents due for her Hamburg clothing business and has been unable to access funds through the Paycheck Protection Program or other emergency assistance.

She does business in both New York City and Western New York and agrees that one size does not fit all when it comes to reopening the economy.

Powers believes it will take New York City much longer than Buffalo to curb Covid-19, and that Buffalo can operate safely with different guidelines.

"Upstate New York does not have the social distance challenges that New York City does. Every day the subway and public transit systems are packed," Powers said.

The state on Saturday reported lower statewide numbers of confirmed Covid-19 deaths and hospitalizations.

New York on Friday saw 540 deaths, including 36 at nursing homes. That's the lowest figure since the 432 deaths reported for April 2 and well off the peak of 799 fatalities on April 8, the governor's office said.

The reported figure of nearly 17,000 people hospitalized with the coronavirus also gives the governor hope that virus cases have plateaued and begun to decline.

But, he said, the state's hospitals continue to admit about 2,000 people each day with Covid-19.

"That is still an overwhelming number, every day," he said.

The governor said any discussion of lifting the state's restrictions on businesses and other aspects of daily life is tied directly to the state's ability to increase testing.

He said New York needs to double the number of Covid-19 tests performed. Then, he said, public health officials need to be able to follow up on mass testing with contact tracing to identify the people who a Covid-19 patient came in contact with and, if needed, isolate those people as well.

Cuomo said the state's testing labs are limited by their ability to get their hands on enough of the chemicals required to perform these tests.

Mass testing also will help officials keep a closer eye on the infection rate, he said.

Right now, in New York, each person who has Covid-19 infects, on average, slightly fewer than one additional person – "basically stable," he said. This is an improvement from the rate at the height of the crisis of one person infecting 1.4 other people, a change that Cuomo attributes to the state's shutdown orders, social distancing and other steps taken to slow the virus' spread.

State officials need to be able to closely monitor that infection rate as those measures are lifted to make sure it doesn't move above a 1-to-1 rate, Cuomo said.

That's the "tension," as the governor put it, between reopening the state and its effect on the spread of the virus.

Reopening must be coordinated within the country, within the northeast and within New York itself, Cuomo said.

He said he is eager for life and the economy to return to normal – "Nobody wants to reopen more than me" – but the state must be cautious in how it proceeds.

Cuomo is working with the governors of New Jersey, Massachusetts and other neighboring states to address this question. The statewide restrictions remain in effect through May 15.

He said he is concerned about people traveling from one part of the country, where restrictions are lifted, to a state like New York where they aren't.

That also is a concern within the state, although he acknowledged Covid-19 has affected the more populous New York City and its suburbs far differently than upstate communities.

Brooklyn, for example, has 35,673 confirmed Covid-19 cases. Erie County, at 2,127, has the most upstate. Chautauqua County, by contrast, has 25 cases.

But, Cuomo said, if the state opens a beach in one community he worries that could be a draw for people from another area that remains shut down. "You could create an unintended consequence where you have a flood of people," Cuomo said.

Nursing homes are Cuomo's 'biggest fear' as Covid-19 deaths rise

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