ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo contended Friday that ventilation systems in malls and theaters could spread the coronavirus, an assertion immediately disputed by the largest operator of shopping plazas in upstate New York.
Pyramid Management Group, in a statement responding to Cuomo, said, "There is no documented link between HVAC systems and the spread of COVID-19 in malls."
Among the large malls operated by Pyramid are the Champlain Centre in Plattsburgh, Walden Galleria near Buffalo, Aviation Mall in Queensbury and New York's largest shopping center, Destiny USA near Syracuse.
Cuomo said the state is trying to determine if there are any ventilation filters on the market that can trap the coronavirus.
He ordered malls to close 14 weeks ago, though recently the state allowed stores with exits that do not lead to the mall interior to open. That move has allowed some anchor stores to reopen, but many independently-operated small businesses located in mall interiors, as well as food courts and restaurants, remain closed.
Pyramid also questioned the consistency of the state's handling of the effort to restart the economy, pointing out the Cuomo administration allowed many big box retail stores to open throughout the lockdown order after deeming them to be "essential."
Other venues with HVAC systems that have remained open or have reopened at reduced capacity include office buildings, subway stations and retail stores outside of malls. Schools were closed in March, though the reason given was concern over the density of people in classrooms, not ventilation issues.
Pyramid said it has been working with HVAC technicians to increase fresh air flow into the buildings it manages and install new filters. The company said it has complied with all guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control, a federal agency, as well as by the state government led by Cuomo.
"This week, we have spoken with dozens of HVAC companies who have shared that Pyramid has done considerably more than other businesses that they represent who are open," Pyramid said.
Cuomo explained that malls, theaters and gyms are being kept from opening because "there has been information that those situations have created issues in other states, adding, "Logic suggests that if you see a problem in other states then you explore it before you move forward in your state."
Cuomo said the state Department of Health, led by Dr. Howard Zucker, is overseeing the effort to determine if there is a filtration system available to remove the virus from air circulation.
As for gyms, Cuomo said he is concerned that people could exhale the virus into the air while vigorously exercising.
The debate over whether malls will need better filtration systems came as the state reported 805 additional people in New York have tested positive for the virus. That was the largest one-day increase in two weeks and brought the total number of people who have been infected in the state since March to 391,220.
The lives of 24,814 New Yorkers have been lost to the virus,with the state leading the nation in both fatalities and the death rate per 100,000 residents.
County governments across the state have been assisting with contact tracing efforts to quicken the response to breakouts of the virus when people are in close proximity. One cluster of 82 infected people has been traced to an upstate apple-packing facility, Champlain Valley Specialty in Oswego.
A second cluster of 38 cases has been tied to an aluminum manufacturing plant, Keymark Corp. in the Montgomery County town of Fonda. Testing on approximately 200 additional employees has not been completed.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com