NEW ROCHELLE — After mass confusion among regional executives, half the state entered the second phase of reopening nonessential businesses Friday and New York City is expected to start reopening in early June as downstate COVID-19 numbers continue to drop, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
The North Country, Finger Lakes, Central New York, Mohawk Valley and Southern Tier regions were cleared to resume phase-II businesses of the state’s four-phase reopening plan for nonessential businesses Friday afternoon. Professional services including barber shops and hair salons, finance and insurance, retail, administrative support, real estate and rental leasing industries and other office-based work can reopen under the second phase.
Many county and regional officials monitoring their COVID-19 hospitalization, infection and death rates were confused Thursday into Friday as they expected to start Phase II at midnight — or the expected 14 days between phases — so Friday could be the first full day of business.
The governor said he understood the frustration over the half-day delay, adding the afternoon announcement came after multiple international experts cleared regions to proceed with reopening after examining their COVID-19 metrics.
“Today is today,” Cuomo said Friday during a 1 p.m. pandemic briefing at Iona College. “I wanted to make sure we had the best minds review all the data and give us their opinion. A county expert may be very good at what they do, but they’re not an expert of viral transmission.
“...It’s stone to stone across the morass,” the governor added. “If you step on a lily pad across the morass, you will sink.”
Friday marked two weeks since the regions started phase I after the governor’s NY On Pause order first expired.
New York City is expected to begin reopening June 8, or one week from Monday, as hospital bed capacity continues to improve and officials hire and train hundreds of contact tracers. The city is the last region to restart the local economy and satisfied five of the Department of Health’s seven required reopening benchmarks Friday afternoon.
The state will focus COVID-19 resources in low-income and minority New York City “hotspot” neighborhoods, mainly in the Bronx and parts of Brooklyn where some infection rates toppled 40% — twice the city’s general population, Cuomo said.
About 400,000 New York City employees will return to work when construction, manufacturing and retail pickup resume under phase I.
“We are excited to get to the point of a restart for New York City,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said via video call during Friday’s briefing. “The indicators are moving absolutely in the right direction... We are on the gateway to the next big step.”
City officials have a goal to admit fewer than 200 new COVID-19 patients into downstate hospitals and less than 50% positive virus diagnostic test results in 24 hours. On Thursday, about 5% of the city’s COVID-19 tests were positive and the region had 61 new virus patients.
Businesses will reopen with 50% occupancy and requiring all employees to wear face masks. Meetings are not permitted unless socially distanced. Workers should not share food or beverages.
Barbershops and hair salons will open by appointment only. Stylists or other salon professionals must be tested for COVID-19 at least once every two weeks. The state recommends all workers get tested before reopening.
Some business owners across the state have threatened to reopen before getting the green light from state or local officials, or before their region reaches that industry’s reopening phase.
“It’s not up to you when you reopen,” the governor said. “You have to follow the law, or you will be closed.”
State officials are examining allowing socially distanced outdoor dining at bars and restaurants, which have been restricted to take-out or delivery options since March 17.
New York’s COVID-19 fatalities reached 23,780 Friday — up from 23,712 Thursday. Johns Hopkins University & Medicine’s online COVID-19 tracker, which includes probable virus deaths in its tally, listed the state’s virus death toll as 29,591.
The state saw 67 virus-related deaths Thursday, including 46 in hospitals and 21 in nursing homes. New York’s COVID-19 death rate remains flat after 74 fatalities Tuesday and Wednesday and 73 Monday.
“Thank the good Lord it’s at its lowest level ever,” Cuomo said. “We hope and we pray that continues to be the case.
“...We can fix deficits, we can fix [budget] shortfalls, we can fight Washington for funding... the only number we can’t fix is the number of deaths.”
The state tested 1,944,130 total by Friday, revealing 368,284 total positive cases of the virus. New York’s hospitalization rates continued a downward trend to 3,781 patients, down 229, according to the governor’s office.
New Yorkers must continue to wear face masks or coverings in public and socially distance, Cuomo said. Several states and countries, including Mississippi, some California counties, Germany and South Korea, have had to slow reopening after resuming business too quickly.
“They wound up closing again, which is the worst situation,” Cuomo said. “The basic rule is, it’s still about how we act. ... It’s reopening to a new normal — a safer normal. It’s up to us. It’s up to you.”