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Businesses and governments must prepare for the post-pandemic world

Once the Covid-19 curve has been flattened, our businesses and institutions will gradually reopen. No one knows for sure when that will happen or what it will look like. In places that deal with the public directly – restaurants and bars, retail stores, museums or airports – the doors may open, but individuals will decide when they feel safe enough to return with their wallets and credit cards.

While business people, as well as the rest of us, are eager for a chance to restart things, it’s also clear that institutions must use the remaining time in the economic pause to make full use of planning in order to reopen as efficiently as possible. The future belongs to those who prepare.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday named several dozen members to a statewide advisory board on reopening. The governor says a two-phase restart could begin on May 15. Construction, manufacturing and other “low-risk” businesses would go first.

Developers and manufacturing representatives told The News last week they are itching to open up production, saying they can safely implement social distancing now.

“I don’t know why we’ve got to wait three weeks to make this happen. … I think we can demonstrate with some expediency that we can operate,” said Peter Coleman, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance.

One reason to wait is to respect science. The region needs to see a consistent decline in cases of Covid-19 before it should resume business activities. That’s not happening.

What is more, most factories were not built with social distancing in mind. That presents special challenges for manufacturers. Automakers, for example, have assembly lines that often depend on collaboration among workers.

It’s reasonable to assume that construction projects, particularly those outdoors, can meet the challenges of distancing, but jumping the gun – before more is known about testing and proper protocols for returning – could do more harm than good. Paul Ciminelli, owner of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp., is taking a properly cautious approach.

“As much as we would like to see all businesses up and running at full capacity as quickly as possible, a phased approach is smart and necessary,” he told The News, “ … the health and wellness of our communities must be our absolute priority.”

Businesses and their customers

Reopening the economy, first and foremost, requires there to be an economy in waiting. The maddening delays and convolutions of providing help to small businesses and laid-off workers undermines that essential effort.

Washington’s initial measure to help small businesses, the $350 billion “Paycheck Protection Program,” was gobbled up by hotels, restaurant chains and other big businesses. And its program to provide payments of $1,200 to individual taxpayers or $2,400 to couples who file jointly has been plagued by delays.

Similarly, unemployment claims in New York are being stymied by a level of demand that has overwhelmed the state Labor Department. Both the system and its implementation need further improvements.

There won’t be much use of reopening economies if too many businesses have collapsed and if potential customers – worried about foreclosures, evictions and repossessions – have no money to spend. These problems have to be fixed quickly.

NFTA running on fumes

A large public institution that serves thousands of people is the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which is working to figure out how precipitous drops in ridership and revenue will affect its future.

The NFTA operates nearly empty buses these days, and has waived fares so that passengers can enter buses from the back. Metro Bus and Rail are still operating to help essential workers get to their jobs. As businesses start to reopen, NFTA will need its drivers, mechanics and other staff members ready to go when ridership surges.

The Buffalo Niagara International Airport is particularly worrisome. These days, the NFTA facility sits nearly bereft of passengers, with little air travel happening.

An injection of emergency federal funding is keeping the NFTA afloat for five months, but no one is sure what happens after that. The agency has put major capital improvements on hold. The plan to build an extension of Metro Rail out to the University at Buffalo’s North Campus is likely years away, due to the financial wreckage from Covid-19.

Preparing for the planes, trains and buses to fill up again will seem like the easy part, compared to figuring out how to shore up the NFTA’s finances. But our region cannot afford to back down from improving its airport and investing in public transportation to get people to their jobs, especially those without other means of transportation.

Reopening the economy won’t happen simply because the state says it’s time. We need to prepare and a crucial part of that work is protecting businesses, customers and essential infrastructure.

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