In Week, Debate Over Baby Step
Turns Into Big Forward Strides
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
For Otsego County businesses (and local governments that depend on the sales taxes they generate), it was the week the iceberg cracked.
Just last Wednesday, May 6, the county Board of Representatives heatedly debated a mild resolution nudging Governor Cuomo to “reopen” Otsego County as soon as he could, please.
The mild resolution passed 13-1, with the sole holdout, Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus, the state senate candidate, saying, “Let’s put together a structured plan to reopen Otsego County” and send it to the governor.
That prompted response from his Senate opponent, Jim Barber, Schoharie, who that evening issued a press release accusing Oberacker of Ignoring “the science.”
A week later, the debate sounds quaint, because:
• At noon, Thursday, May 7, the New York State Automobile Dealers Association issued a press release: The governor had agreed that all auto dealerships statewide could open, as long as they followed a list of social-distancing precautions. “We’re back in business,” declared Country Club Automotive’s Tom Armao. (And auto dealers are the largest generator of sales tax in the county.)
• In his daily briefing Monday, May 11, Governor Cuomo surprised many by announcing three of the state’s 10 economic development regions, Otsego County’s Mohawk Valley among them, qualified for a Phase One reopening this coming Friday, May 15.
• Tuesday, May 12, Bassett Healthcare President/CEO Bill Streck announced the Cooperstown hospital is again offering its full menu of medical services, after restricting itself since the governor’s March 13 emergency declaration for the pandemic that never arrived. (Only four COVID-19 victims died locally in the course of the crisis.)
“It’s exciting,” said Al Rubin, Otsego County Chamber board chair as events built up momentum. “Now is the time for innovation and creativity.”
Otsego County was back in BID-ness.
The Mohawk Valley, Finger Lakes and Southern Tier economic development districts were only permitted to open up once they reached seven “metrics” of low infestation, hospital capacity, and testing going forward.
“We met all seven,” said Bliss, and he urged owners of Phase One businesses – factories, construction firms, stores wanting to do curbside pickup among them – to “certify” on forward.ny.gov that they meet parameters.
That means their plans to reopen would include social distancing, masks, hand-sanitizers and other measures to protect workers.
And three more “phases” are planned before all Empire State business and institutions can be operational again, although under “new normal” structures:
• PHASE TWO, effective Friday, May 29, covering professional services, finance and insurance, all retail and real estate.
• PHASE THREE, effective Friday, June 12, covering restaurants, hotels and other food services and accommodations.
• PHASE FOUR, effective Friday, June 26, covering arts, entertainment, recreation and education, although by then most local concerts, arts shows and fairs will have been cancelled, and schools and colleges won’t open until September.
In an interview, Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh Kuch, who has been listening in on the daily calls with the Governor’s regional representative, said, “It still won’t be what we think is ‘out of it.’”
Social distancing and other measures will be with us for an uncertain time into the future. “It’s not bam, bam, back to normal,” she said.
If the Mohawk Valley region slips back and infestations return, “we stop right there,” she said. “We have to do it again” – i.e., starting living up to the “metrics” for a probationary period.
At Streck’s press conference, he, Bassett Hospital President Bill LeCates, Dr. Charles Hyman, the infectious disease specialist, Dr. Steven Heneghan, chief clinical officer, all underscored the need for people to maintain discipline.
But Heneghan was firm: If we fall off the wagon, we can get back on, although he didn’t use that metaphor.
We’d do like South Korea, he said: A flare-up there was met with rapid response, tracing and intervention. “It was extraordinarily effective.”
For his part, Bliss said the county’s COVID-19 Task Force – County Treasurer Allen
Ruffles, chair; Public Health Director Heidi Bond, County Attorney Ellen Coccoma and county Rep. Meg Kennedy, the deputy chair – did what they had to do.
By last week, the county had met five of the seven parameters, but by week’s end, it only had 16 of the 17 required “tracers.” Over the weekend, Bond hired another three or four. The task force will continue to do what it must, he implied.
He observed that the governor’s Un-PAUSE program is structured so that, if localities fail, they can take the blame; if they succeed, the governor can take the credit.
Nonetheless, he said, “This is the light at the end of the tunnel.” Then paused. “In the middle of tunnel. We still have a long way to go.”