ALBANY — Select businesses in the Mohawk Valley, the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes are now qualified for reopening Friday after hospitalization and infection rates from the COVID-19 contagion tapered off in recent weeks.
For purposes of reopening, Otsego and Schoharie counties are classified as part of the Mohawk Valley region, while Delaware and Chenango counties are considered part of the Southern Tier.
Because they have not met all of the benchmarks required by the Cuomo administration, reopening will be delayed for Western New York, the North Country and several other regions.
The North Country needs to reach the pass rate for just one of the state's seven criteria, while Western New York must show improvement on three of those categories.
Cuomo suggested the North County and Central New York may move into the reopening column later this week, since they are close to reaching the required level of testing for the virus.
Businesses deemed to be "nonessential" by the Cuomo administration have had to stay closed since March, as have schools and many nonprofit organizations such as museums and theaters.
“This reopening phase is locally driven, regionally driven and regionally designed," Cuomo said during a stop Monday near Rochester. He said the process will be overseen by panels of regional public officials, health care executives and business leaders.
Cuomo had initially insisted New York's reopening decisions would be coordinated with the moves of other nearby states in order to discourage people from traveling from one place to another to find open restaurants, shops and other amenities.
He abandoned that stance after strong concerns were registered by many advocates for upstate businesses, including Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda and Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, in favor of a region-by-region approach.
Jones, reached in Plattsburgh, said he believes the team working on the North Country's reopening effort will have the region ready to satisfy all state requirements by Friday.
"I hope we can do it and do it in a safe manner so we don't have to go through this again," he said.
The governor's announcement came as New York recorded 161 more deaths Monday, the lowest number of fatalities for one day in more than six weeks.
Key requirements for regions to reopen are a 14-day drop in COVID-19 hospitalizations and at least three days of experiencing fewer than five deaths.
Retail stores in the regions that are to reopen Friday will be limited to offering curbside or in-store pickup.
Manufacturers and construction firms will also be allowed to reopen in those regions, once those employers have received approval on their plans to safeguard workers. Some recreational activities, such as tennis, will also be permitted in the first phase of the regional reopenings.
Drive-in movie businesses are also wrapped into the initial reopening phase. Some elected officials and community leaders have suggested that school and college graduation ceremonies can be safely held at drive-ins.
Restaurants and hotels remain on hold in New York and are expected to be included in the third phase of reopening. No date has been given for when that will kick in.
Entertainment-related businesses have been put in the final phase of the state's reopening plans. Numerous summertime performances and events have already been canceled.
The governor suggested New Yorkers are eager to return to their work places and want to "do it smartly."
Cuomo said officials in all of the regions will have to monitor infection, testing and hospitalization data closely from "regional control rooms" in order to respond to any uptick in new cases.
"Just watch the dials," he said of the variables that will amount to "circuit-breakers" in the multi-phase reopening process.
"These control rooms are critical because we just made it over the mountain and nobody wants to go back to the other side now," he said.
New York City, the backdrop for the state's economic region, needs to make the most progress on the state's table of benchmarks before companies can reopen there. The Capital Region, the Mid-Hudson, and Long Island have hit the targets in five categories.
Michael Kracker, director of a business advocacy group, Unshackle Upstate, urged state leaders to make legal protections available to employers so they can have "the confidence to re-open with necessary safety protocols in place."
"It's encouraging to see the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier and Mohawk Valley regions get the green light to re-open on May 15," Kracker said. "We urge the state to do whatever is necessary to help the remaining upstate regions."
The state has produced an online guidebook for the reopening process. That document is available in .pdf format at: tinyurl.com/NewYorkReopeningGuide
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org