As Western New York took its first steps into phase one of restarting the economy in the midst of the pandemic, unanswered questions and often-overwhelming uncertainty still loomed: Some businesses reopened — but could they keep their employees and customers safe?
Others can’t open – yet – because they are awaiting the second, third and fourth phases, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has indicated will come in two-week increments, so long as our region’s Covid-19 numbers trend downward. Open or not, many businesses have directed themselves into self-reinvention: They are finding new ways of taking in customers and making money, while also staying safe.
It’s a tricky balance, but it will be a hallmark of reopening.
The Buffalo News’ reporters and photographers connected with people across the region Wednesday to chronicle some of the scenes:
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After shutting down its fryers for two months, Paula's Donuts is ready to reopen its three area locations at 7 a.m. Thursday – and to manage the crowds it expects to show up.
Paula's closed its Town of Tonawanda, Clarence and West Seneca stores March 20 over safety concerns. It's bringing back nearly all its roughly 150 workers, including new employees hired in recent days.
New rules include daily temperature checks and strict division of labor between the workers who handle doughnuts and those who cash out customers, said Lisa Hoppel, the daughter of founder Paula Huber.
At the Tonawanda store Wednesday, Hoppel showed tape marking off where customers will line up for takeout. Only 10 will be allowed in at a time, and people picking up phone orders won't enter at all.
Workers will hand out face masks to takeout customers who don't have one.
Hoppel said the Tonawanda store already has cut off further phone orders for Thursday, so she expects a healthy demand for the shop's peanut sticks and cannoli doughnuts.
"I'm excited to give people some happiness and yumminess," she said.
— Stephen T. Watson
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The first thing golfers stopping by the Town of Tonawanda's Brighton Driving Range will notice is only half the stalls are in use. The rest are taped off.
Tonawanda Councilman Bill Conrad and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, discussed this and other changes at the Brompton Road outdoor range before it opened at 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Prices remain the same, although the town will take in less revenue with limits imposed on hours of operation and stall use. Workers will disinfect tokens, ball buckets and golf balls after each use.
Youth, Parks and Recreation Department crews roped off and marked with tape where customers can line up to pay for their range balls. Bathrooms are closed and workers removed benches for spectators.
"As you can see, it's much different than we've done it in the past," Conrad said.
After the range update, questions turned to state and local budget woes. One reporter asked whether legalizing pot in New York could help.
"If you think that's going to solve our budget deficit, then you're smoking too much marijuana," Ryan quipped.
— Stephen T. Watson
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Since March, Amanda Robinson has been planning how she will reopen her New Age Salon on Hertel Avenue.
"Trust me. I've been thinking about this the whole time," she said Wednesday.
Robinson started preparing her shop this week to operate again under phase two of Western New York's gradual reopening process.
She removed half of the salon's four chairs and set up an additional workspace/lounge upstairs so two clients scheduled at the same time will never even cross paths.
She's emailing her 2,000 clients details of her plans to keep everyone safe, including extending appointment times to allow for extra sanitizing between customers.
She will change her mask and gloves and wipe down door handles and frequently-touched areas after each client.
And she will take a break twice a day between clients to sanitize "every possible surface" in the shop.
"I don't want my customers to feel like they're compromised at all. I want them to feel good about coming," said Robinson.
"I miss my clients," she added. "I think my one concern is how exhausted I will be. I'm going to be inundated."
— Deidre Williams
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Mark Fromholt is alone in a vast open space.
“I am Tom Hanks in a 40,000-square-foot building,” said Fromholt, the general manager of Samuel’s Grande Manor, an exquisitely decorated – and now empty – wedding and events space in Clarence.
Samuel’s has a staff of 60 during its busy season. Today, Fromholt is it — and he’s working part time. But his days feeling like Hank’s “Castaway” movie character stranded on a deserted island may be changing.
Samuel’s is considering opening temporarily as a seafood or live-entertainment restaurant until weddings and other big events are allowed.
Fromholt, who says he has “lost count” of how many weddings and banquets he has had to cancel or postpone, is gathering ideas being used in other regions on safe seating arrangements (it could be fewer people per table, for example, or seating as family units) and awaiting regulations on capacity allowed.
Fromholt believes the oft-referenced “new normal” will eventually resemble the old normal, with people eating and drinking in large groups. But “when that happens,” he said, “I don't know.”
For now, he can only prepare for what’s next — and while that's certain to be smaller and more spacious, he'll no longer be standing alone.
– Tim O'Shei
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Bush Industries makes ready-to-assemble office furniture, ideal products for the home office settings so many of us have been thrust into.
But until this week, the Jamestown plant was on the manufacturing sidelines. Now that workers have returned, they are encountering all kinds of changes.
"Overall people seem to be happy to start getting back to somewhat of a normal schedule and they have been very pleasant as a general rule," said Angie Turner, human resources director.
Bush has changed shift schedules and assignments, to cut down the number of people working at any one time, said Michael Evans, the president and CEO. The plant has implemented social distancing protocols and is taking workers' temperatures daily, and workers are donning personal protective equipment.
"We were very concerned about the impact of the potential impact of shift changes," Evans said. "While we did lose some long-tenured employees to retirement, the response was very good and we had well over 90% of our people come back to work."
The plant has put up yellow movable barriers, resembling shower curtains, on its main packing line to keep workers apart. The company has also installed barriers at work stations on the main assembly line.
The company also set up an additional break area, so that the main break room doesn't get overcrowded. Which means Bush employees are seeing changes even in places where they don't work.
– Matt Glynn
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If readers know exactly what they want, the Lockport Public Library will be able to provide books for them starting next Wednesday.
That's when the library plans to reopen, but only to those who have emailed ahead to reserve a particular book. Phone reservations will be allowed starting next week. A valid library card and a face mask will be mandatory for those picking up their choices, director Beverly Federspiel said.
"There's no browsing. It's in, pick up your item and leave," Federspiel said. "We're not happy about that, but we're happy that at least we can start getting materials out to our community."
No other library services will be available at first. A full reopening probably won't happen until the same time that restaurants will be allowed to serve sit-down customers, Federspiel said.
"That's because they see us as a gathering place," Federspiel said. "We've already plexiglassed off our service areas in anticipation of that."
Besides opening the boxes of new books, Federspiel's team faces 19 carts of returned books, placed in the book drop since the closure, that need to be placed back on the shelves.
— Thomas J. Prohaska
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Domenic Cortese was ready to go to work even before Cuomo gave the go-ahead.
The president of Cortese Construction Services Corp. had heard the governor talk on Sunday about opening up Western New York. So he immediately texted his team to get them back to work the next day.
Then Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul threw cold water on his hopes later on Sunday, because of a shortage of contact tracers at that time. “So I had to contact everybody again to say we’re on pause,” Cortese said. “We had a false start.”
Still, as soon as the restrictions were actually lifted, he joined one of his project managers for a pre-construction meeting at 8 a.m. Tuesday morning at a customer’s house.
“It was almost an out-of-body experience,” he said. “I’ve done it countless times, and it felt like the first time, because of how it felt like this new world where nothing’s going to be the same anymore. It’s almost comical to the extent that it’s almost absurd.”
They wore face masks, stood apart at opposite corners of the room, and talked about safety protocols as they reviewed the upcoming work with the client. And there’s no more socialization.
“Before, you’d come in, and shake the customers' hands. If you knew them, give them a hug,” Cortese said. Now, “it’s just strictly business.”
– Jonathan D. Epstein
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Janaine Gates showed off the rows of brightly colored flowers and plants for sale Wednesday afternoon on a banquet table set up under a blue tent on the sidewalk, right outside her shop, Maasai Consignment Boutique at 208 E. Delavan Ave., that she runs with Michelle Matthews.
Marigolds. Cabbage. Ghost peppers. "A little bit of everything," Gates said.
With curbside sales being allowed as part of the state's first phase of reopening, Gates and Matthews decided they would give it a go. Matthews took a trip out to Spoth's Farm Market in East Amherst to buy the most eye-catching plants she could find.
They put those on display outside, along with a few furniture items from their store, including five upholstered chairs, a tall wine rack and a tissue cabinet.
Normally, they're open noon to 7 p.m. The plan Wednesday was to try how noon to 4 p.m. went.
"It feels amazing," Gates said. "We've had people driving by and honking their horns."
Linda Weiss, who was driving by, pulled over when she saw the flowers.
"My heart has been needing flowers," she said, picking out a Mandevilla and a Coleus to take home.
— Maki Becker
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The new Covid-19 testing site that opened Wednesday in the parking lot of Evergreen Health and Community Access Services on Bailey Avenue was available to anyone who drove or walked up and wanted to get the test.
Cedric Ware rode in on his bike.
"I'm a cook that's out of work," said Ware, who wore a white bandanna over his nose and mouth as a worker checked his insurance card.
Ware was the head chef at Boomerang's on Niagara Street until it closed down temporarily in March because of the pandemic. It wasn't until this past Saturday, he said, that he was about to get through on the state's unemployment line.
"Finally," he said.
He let me watch him get his test. pic.twitter.com/Yrtgue8Mxd
— Maki Becker (@makibecker) May 20, 2020
Ware lives on Highgate Avenue, in the middle of the 14215 Zip code which has been the hardest hit by the coronavirus in all of Erie County. As of May 19, 403 people who live in that Zip code have tested positive for Covid-19.
When he heard that testing was available at the clinic, which is in the 14215 area and code and so close to his house, he decided to take the opportunity.
He went inside a white tent where Dr. Alyssa Shon, wearing a face shield, mask, gown and gloves, explained to him what to expect.
"Try not to pull back your head," she said. "It may make you cause to tear or sneeze or cough... Look straight ahead."
She then carefully inserted a long, thin swab deep into a nostril. And then it was done. He should get the results in two to five days.
"It felt like they were tickling my brain," Ware said, dabbing at his nose with a tissue. "It's not painful, but it's not comfortable."
He didn't have big plans for the rest of the day. "Cut my grass. Walk my dog. Again," he said, then rode back home on his bike.
— Maki Becker
Note: Testing is available for people 16 and older at Evergreen Health/Community Access Services 3297 Bailey Avenue Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. You must either have private insurance or Medicaid. Appointments are highly recommended but not necessary. To make an appointment, call 716-847-2441.