The nearly three-month quarantine caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in March is like nothing we have seen.
We watched an economy enjoying record-low unemployment spiral into a free fall, as many businesses were forced to close their doors or significantly curtail operations. The national unemployment rate jumped into double digits, and so many people were being laid off so fast that state labor offices could not keep up. Some sent to the unemployment lines still have not received benefits.
However, the long shutdown is slowly coming to an end in New York and nationwide. Retail businesses of all sizes have been allowed to reopen under the Phase II reopening plan by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Outdoor dining at restaurants was given the governor’s go-ahead as well this past week.
Next week, the Finger Lakes region is poised to enter Phase III of the state’s reopening plan, with indoor dining and wine, and brewery and distillery tasting rooms, among the activities expected to return.
It is all bringing some optimism back to the region after we spent most of the last three months harboring in our homes and away from others as a way to reduce the spread of the highly infectious disease.
Here’s a look at what’s happened and what’s ahead for businesses, schools, governments and more.
Restaurateur Pete Mitchell said one of the true joys of life is to break bread with friends and family. For the most part, that happens in the kitchen or around the dining room table. But, he said, there is a special feeling about sitting down in a restaurant to enjoy a drink and a meal with special company.
That has been missing, though it’s coming back.
On Wednesday, Cuomo announced that restaurants can offer outdoor dining — with a number of safeguards in place — and, as soon as June 12, diners could be sitting inside their favorite restaurants for the first time in months.
Stonecutter’s Tavern at Belhurst is now offering outside seating from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and many others are doing the same or gearing up for it.
Mitchell’s six restaurants — four Parker’s Grille & Tap Houses, as well as Halsey’s in Geneva and 86 Fall in Seneca Falls — soon will be reopening their doors to diners. And with his managers, he’s getting his restaurants ready for outdoor dining as well.
The indoor dining clearance date will depend, as Cuomo often states, on the data, which would clear the way for the third phase of reopenings under the four-step plan.
Mitchell said it’s difficult to plan with the Phase III date in flux.
“My biggest concern is he doesn’t tell us until the very last second that we can open,” he said. “Will we throw the dice next week (assuming June 12 is the date)? Probably.”
The outdoor dining issue means many restaurants are mobilizing to reopen, but for others, it will take time. Employees who have been laid off — Mitchell has 170 — must be rehired, while food must be ordered.
Mitchell said it might take time to see diners return in earnest, given their fears of COVID-19, even with infection numbers across the state dropping.
“I think they will be a little skittish going out at first,” he said.
He also notes that because of limits on capacity, most likely 50% of occupancy, diners might want to think about alternative times for eating. For instance, he said, instead of a noon lunch, how about 11 a.m. or 1 p.m.? And instead of 6 p.m. for dinner, how about 8?
Mitchell said COVID-19 has done major damage to the nation’s restaurant industry, but he believes Finger Lakes establishments will rise again. Three months without business is bad for any restaurant owner, but newer establishments that are leveraged heavily are the ones most likely to close, he said. Many of Geneva’s restaurants are well established and likely able to weather the storm.
Mitchell said his employees and other restaurant owners are eager to get back to doing what they love.
“I personally am dying to wait on somebody,” he said. “This (business) is completely in your blood. It’s a lifestyle. It’s how we live.”
You wouldn’t think the dental office would be one of the things people would be champing at the bit to return to, but you would be wrong, said Frank Triana, of Triana and Triana DDS on Washington Street in Geneva, where he practices with his wife, Dianna.
“We’re in catchup mode,” Triana said, adding that many patients are eager to get in for cleanings.
Unlike some businesses, the doors never closed at the Washington Street dental office in Geneva. It has been open until noon everyday to take emergency and urgent-care cases and field questions from patients to determine whether what they were experiencing was in those categories of allowable services.
Triana said he understood why dentists were asked to cease non-emergency care during the earlier stages of the pandemic.
“They didn’t want us to burn up the (personal protection equipment),” he said, referring to gloves, masks, gowns and shields, etc. “We were under the impression we were in Phase II.”
It turned out they were not in any phase. However, the governor announced Sunday that dentists across the state could fully open their offices.
Triana said New York was the 48th state to do so.
Specific safety protocol is in place for patients, and Triana said the office “has been working on them for 12 weeks.” Beyond that, he said dentists “have always been ahead of the curve on infection control.”
The office is also trying to put patients at ease as they have their first visits since the coronavirus pandemic hit the nation. On their website, the office has posted information about what patients should expect when they come in.
“We (also) call everybody ahead of time and walk them through what they’re going to expect,” he said.
Triana said he’s eager to see patients return.
“I became a dentist to help people and treat patients,” he said.
Salons and barbershops were among the most highly anticipated businesses to reopen, and for good reason: Most of us were getting pretty shaggy after nearly three months of quarantine and no professional haircutters available. Or we’ve been walking around with some pretty lame-looking styles.
Let’s just say there’s a lot of catching up for haircutters too, who are extending hours and taking appointments on days they normally would not be open to accommodate their eager customers. And they’re doing it all with the required protections for both the cutter and customer, said Debbie Ralston, owner of Details Salon.
“It has been non-stop at the salon,” she related this week. “We’re either busy with appointments or busy disinfecting everything after or returning messages for appointments. It’s definitely been a change, and even the way we used to book a client is a learning process, as we have to allow time for check in, cleaning time and allowing time to breathe without all of the required PPE on.”
The PPE includes a mask and face shield, she noted.
She said the rule is one client per stylist at a time, and clients are required to sanitize hands, answer a COVID-19 questionnaire, sign an “in-and-out” time sheet and have their temperature taken.
“We are only allowed limited services that include haircuts, color and styling,” she said. “No mustache or beard trimming, no waxing.”
In a previous Finger Lakes Times story, Ralston noted that many haircutters, most of whom are self-employed, had been waiting months for their special unemployment benefits to come in.
“Unemployment has finally come through for most of us,” she said — ironically, as the industry is returning to work.
Ralston said they are happy to be back in the salon, and customers are pleased as well.
“Clients have been so understanding and gracious to us and just happy to get their hair done, as we are just as happy to be back to do it,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a huge strain on hospitals — from overworked staff to strained financial resources.
Jeff Morgan, treasurer and chief financial officer for Finger Lakes Health, which operates Geneva General Hospital and Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hospital in Penn Yan, said the COVID-19 pandemic has strained its resources.
“Most not-for-profit hospitals already operate with very slim margins,” he said. “Hospitals have high fixed costs. They are open 24/7 and depend on a certain volume of patients to generate revenue to help offset those costs. We have many fixed overhead costs in order to provide the type of services, (and) maintain minimum staffing levels and equipment in order to be available and accessible to our communities.”
Morgan noted, for example, that Geneva General Hospital’s Emergency Department saw a significant reduction in volume from April 2019, compared to April 2020, “yet we needed to remain at the ready and staffed to prepare for patients who might need us and also in preparation for a possible surge in COVID-19 patients in our area.” And, he pointed out the hospital was not performing most elective surgeries and other services that provide higher levels of reimbursement.
“Without this revenue to offset our costs of operations, Finger Lakes Health, like hospitals across the nation, has seen an overall drop in revenue from April 2019 as compared to April 2020, right at the very time our communities were depending most upon us being here for them,” he said.
Elective surgeries and other services have since been restored.
Morgan said the federal CARES Act has provided some financial relief, “but falls far short of the need.” He said increased costs include state-mandated, twice-weekly COVID-19 testing for all long-term care facility employees.
“Despite an executive order from the New York state governor that this testing must be paid for by the employees’ health insurance plans, most health insurance plans have so far refused to pay for this testing,” he said.
Morgan said the mandate is costing Finger Lakes Health about $90,000 per week for outside lab processing, and that doesn’t include staff time to administer tests and collect specimens.
“This is at the same time that New York state has cut Medicaid reimbursement to nursing homes by 1.5%,” he said.
The hospitals have also “experienced an exponential increase in the costs of necessary supplies such as personal protective equipment.” For example, said Morgan, prior to the pandemic, an isolation gown was priced at 15 cents. Now the price ranges from $5.43 to $16 for each one.
“We use thousands of these each week, and these increased costs have a real impact,” he said. “All these forces combined have left us and many hospitals and health systems nationwide facing challenging circumstances.”
Dr. Dustin Riccio, president of Rochester Regional Health Eastern Region, said the same is true with his health system.
“The pandemic has presented every hospital and health system in the country with significant staffing and financial challenges,” he said.
Riccio said the health system’s size has helped it weather the pandemic.
“Including Newark-Wayne Community Hospital and Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic, Rochester Regional Health’s network extends from the Finger Lakes into western New York, allowing us to send providers, staff and resources where they are needed,” he said. “Our five hospitals, six nursing homes, and more than 150 offsite locations have been working together to make sure every site has enough staff, PPE and other equipment as we all navigate the challenges of the pandemic.”
With tasting rooms unable to open during the shutdown, wineries are looking toward a possible opening next week under Phase III, said Carmela Barbagallo, executive director of the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance.
Craft breweries would be allowed to open their tasting rooms as well, said the New York State Brewer’s Association.
But the approach to this unsettling year is different, Barbagallo said.
“I see the Finger Lakes wine industry as a great example of modern-day businesses being able to pivot and respond to market needs,” she said. “Talk about effective change management skills. Winery owners and marketing directors created new 2020 marketing plans and techniques quickly and effectively.”
She noted that wineries have been surviving without tasting rooms available to them because of “support from loyal customers hoping to spend their money with these relatively small businesses. We’ve seen a ‘support local’ campaign here in the Finger Lakes and are immensely grateful for it.”
While the hope is a June 12 opening, Barbagallo said patrons should check with wineries before heading out for a visit.
“We are recommending all guests visit winery websites before traveling, since some wineries are requiring tasting appointments,” she said.
Barbagallo said Brittany Gibson, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, “has taken a real leadership position in drafting a reopening policies document for all wineries to share. Wineries are heading advice from the CDC and the Wine Institute when it comes to safety protocols that will keep their employees and guests safe. Wineries are looking at their physical spaces and procedures to see how they can implement new processes to distance guests and ensure safety. Our partner organizations, Wine America and the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, have been very helpful in benchmarking best practices.”
Scott Osborn, owner of Fox Run Vineyards in Benton, said the winery is holding its own under challenging circumstances, although he expects the Finger Lakes wine region recovery to take time.
“It is going to be a long, slow process, probably 12-24 months,” he said.
John Martini, owner of Anthony Road Wine Co. in Torrey, said they “have been in a holding pattern, living on shipping wines, which are not nearly equal to regular tasting room sales, the Paycheck Protection Program and wholesale markets. We are behind, but alive. We have not laid anyone off.”
You will notice differences at Anthony Road amid the pandemic, he said.
“We see this as a slow process that will change the way we conduct tastings here at Anthony Road,” he said. “We have invested in tables and chairs to handle groups of two, four or six. No more large groups, buses or limos. People will have to make an appointment to assure a space, wear a mask as they enter the building and until they are seated at their assigned table. The tables are separated to provide for social distancing. Menus of our tasting selections will be provided by their server, who will answer questions, bring them their wine selections and take any purchasing orders to a station where the orders will be fulfilled.”
Martini said Anthony Road is hoping to kick off June 12 with a soft opening for members of its wine club.
“This will allow us to gauge the efficiency of our plans and the adjustments that we may have to make,” he said. “From our perspective, this will be the future at Anthony Road: fewer visitors and a more catered approach for the customers that visit.”
The impact on schools has been far reaching. When ordered to close in March, they were forced to adopt remote learning.
Cuomo ultimately determined they would not be open for the rest of the school year and that summer school would work under the distance-learning model adopted after the March building closures.
In the meantime, schools are grappling with how to handle graduations for their 2020 seniors and are looking ahead to a possible reopening in the fall, the latter of which will need to be approved by the governor.
Cuomo has approved “drive-through” graduation ceremonies for seniors, but has yet to OK traditional events, which would constitute a mass gathering. Republicans in the state Legislature are pushing him to allow them, given many other mass gatherings are taking place, including the Black Lives Matter protests.
“As a state, we need to be consistent in what we are asking the residents to do,” said Assemblyman Brian Manktelow, R-130 of Lyons. “We cannot have two standards. If we can have mass groups on the streets, we must allow these graduates this courtesy.”
Waterloo Superintendent Terri Bavis said no decisions have been made on either graduation or the reopening of school this fall.
“We are still working on these,” she said. “They are not at a point that we can share.”
The same is true at Newark, said Superintendent Matt Cook.
“It might be premature (to answer), as there are so many unknowns and the planning changes day to day,” he said.
Seneca Falls Superintendent Jeramy Clingerman said the district is “just starting to talk about the process for developing a plan for September 2020. As for graduation, we are still trying to plan, and nothing concrete to contribute to an article at this time.”
South Seneca Superintendent Stephen Parker Zielinski said the 10-person maximum on gatherings would need to change if graduations are to resume.
“If we are able, South Seneca will hold a ceremony at our track, with families and grads distanced from one another,” he said. “Plans for reopening are in the early stages as we gather guidance and watch for new executive orders and requirements.”
The reopening of schools is a challenge, Zielinski acknowledged.
“There are implications for every facet of every school day — from busing to cafeterias, classrooms to extracurriculars, building use to room capacities,” he said. “We also anticipate some percentage of staff and families who are vulnerable or fearful of returning, so new policies may need to be written.”
At Geneva, district spokesperson Heather Swanson said the issues are similar to the other districts: It’s a work in progress.
“We have a committee of seniors working on a proposal around graduation, but that has not yet been submitted,” she said. “We are waiting for further direction from the state for our plan around reopening.”
It’s a mixed bag for crime, said local law enforcement officials. Calls for police help are down, but domestic violence during the long quarantine is up. And, the pandemic has made police work even more challenging.
“Calls for service decreased in Seneca Falls during the pandemic,” Seneca Falls Police Chief Stu Peenstra said. “The number of complaints (calls for service) and the severity of the calls has definitely increased in the past month. The main challenges our department faced trying to keep our officers healthy was definitely having the proper/enough PPE. We implemented a department guide for COVID-19. We internally struggled with the constant changes. Sometimes changing the COVID-19 guide and sending it out to department members multiple times in a 24-hour period. The final version ended up being 19 pages long. The other challenge was keeping a safe distance from people while trying to provide a public service.”
Wayne County Sheriff Barry Virts said his department has had similar experiences.
“We have seen an increase in domestic trouble violence/family trouble, assaults, disturbances and psych calls,” he said.
And, COVID-19 has directly impacted his department.
“Wearing masks is paramount when around others,” he said. “The last Saturday of March, I had to quarantine 25 correction officers and, the first Saturday of April, nine deputy sheriffs.”
Like Peenstra and Virts, Waterloo Police Chief Jason Godley reports similar experiences.
“Our agency has seen an increase in domestic violence calls for service and mental health issues during the pandemic,” he said. “Some of our challenges have been finding ways to effectively police while maintaining social distancing and wearing masks. Our officers were handling non-emergency calls to service by phone, when practical. When we would respond to residences or businesses, we would interview people outside and maintain our social distancing. When we had people in custody, our officers would wear masks and gloves. We would encourage the person who is under arrest to wear a mask as well, and they would voluntarily oblige.”
He noted department workstations and patrol cars are sanitized before and after shifts.
“I would like to commend our officers, who continued to provide a high level of police service to our community during this unprecedented time,” said Godley.
Counties, towns and villages have taken a financial beating through the pandemic, with one of their largest revenue sources, sales taxes, down significantly. Officials aren’t expecting those sales tax receipts to rebound quickly, given the economic calamity that has resulted in double-digit unemployment both here and nationally.
Ontario County Administrator Brian Young said the county has taken a number of cost-cutting steps to address revenue losses. They include a hiring freeze, unless the position is for public health or some public safety positions. Also, department heads have been asked to reduce operating budgets by 5% for the remainder of 2020 and to minimize overtime, while forgoing major purchases for the remainder of 2020.
Young noted that the county’s collective bargaining units agreed to a temporary voluntary layoff until July 31, with 62 employees accepting.
He said the county has reduced or deferred projects in its capital improvement plan by over $5 million in 2020. They’ve also reviewed and abolished vacant positions.
Young said the county is continually reviewing sales tax data, and it estimates a $9 million loss of revenue.
Wayne County Administrator Rick House said COVID-19 “has created a severe economic impact on the state of New York and on Wayne County. The county treasurer has indicated that due to the emergency, the county is facing a potential loss in sales tax revenues and the withholding of other state funding, such as grants and aid, of approximately $10 million. That number could easily rise to $15 million.”
He said April 2020 sales tax receipts were down approximately $1 million compared to April 2019, and that May’s sales tax receipts are predicted to drop even more.
House said a $53 million fund balance will help the county “weather the fiscal storm through the remainder of 2020. … However, the fiscal impacts of the current pandemic are going to linger for a long time after the pandemic has passed.”
As part of the 2021 budget process, House said department heads have been instructed to prepare and submit long-term efficiency plans that include reductions from their current 2020 budgets.
“The county is looking at cost-saving measures, including a reduction of the workforce each year over the next five budget years,” he said, noting that the Board of Supervisors enacted a hiring freeze through Dec. 31, 2021. “The goal is to save approximately $5 million this year by not filling vacant budgeted positions.”
Yates County Treasurer/Administrator Nonie Flynn said a financial impact analysis indicates the county needs to reduce its 2020 budget from $4.9 to $2.9 million.
“This projection is based primarily on incoming sales tax revenue projections and reduced New York State aid,” she said. “However, almost three months in, we are still facing uncertainty regarding our revenue stream.”
Flynn said the county has taken a number of cost-cutting measures: No overtime unless COVID-19 related; budget officer approval for any purchases over $1,000; a hold on conferences and travel; voluntary temporary layoffs for 19 employees through July 31; implementing a hiring freeze; and a postponement of capital plan studies.
“We also have found savings with low oil and gas prices,” she said. “At this time, we do not anticipate cuts to any county programs or services and hopefully will not have to make any more difficult or costly reductions.”
Seneca County Administrator Mitch Rowe said the county is projecting a $3 million loss of sales tax revenue for 2020, a $1 million reduction in gaming revenue, and a $100,000 reduction in bed tax revenue.
In response to those anticipated shortfalls, the county also has taken cost-cutting steps. Rowe said it recently eliminated 24 positions, but has not undertaken furloughs. A hiring freeze for non-essential employees has been implemented. The measures are expected to save the county about $1 million.
Rowe said county departments have been asked to defer non-essential spending and projects as well.
“We continue to operate at 50% non-essential workers at county facilities and have found effective ways for impacted staff to work remotely,” he added.
Cost-cutting is also underway at the town of Geneva, Supervisor Mark Venuti noted.
“In April, I directed department heads not to approve or make any large purchases without checking with me,” he said. “At our last Town Board meeting, we canceled the paving of three roads that we approved last fall to save a little under $200,000. We’ve also decided not to open the Town Hall to the public on Fridays to save that expense. We have a small staff, so at this point, we are not looking at furloughs or layoffs, but that may come depending on how the recovery goes.”
Venuti said that in preparation for the 2021 budget, department heads must provide budget requests for essential services, but “no large equipment purchases or the like.” The goal is a 2021 spending plan “significantly below 2020, so we can recoup some of the loss and hope we aren’t in a lockdown next year, because two years in row will be hard to take. However, at this point we should be able to deliver the essential services people need despite the anticipated hit to revenue.”
Newark Mayor Jonathan Taylor said the pandemic “has made planning and budgeting this year the most difficult in recent memory. We have valid concerns about the increase in costs associated with COVID-19, potential loss in state aid and the loss of sales tax revenues, which is a significant funding source for all municipalities.”
He said the village would need to increase taxes by 1% to make up for every $40,000 increase in additional expenses and/or loss of revenues.
“No one can accurately forecast how deep the loss in revenue from sales tax may be from the shutdown of most businesses,” he said. “This leaves every municipality with challenging decisions to make about future spending and any potential increases in taxes.”
The city of Geneva did not respond for comment to this story, but has already initiated a number of cost-savings measures, including a hiring freeze, voluntary temporary layoff, and a freeze on non-essential spending. The city faces a general fund revenue gap that could be as high as $4.4 million in a worst-case scenario.
Tourism is one of the true economic drivers of the Finger Lakes economy, and it’s been ground to a virtual halt through the shutdown.
Jeff Shipley, president and CEO of the Seneca County Chamber of Commerce, which is the county’s tourism agency, said the COVID-19 shutdown “has had a devastating impact on the travel and tourism industry. At the Seneca County Chamber, we surveyed local businesses in mid-April, and the information that we received was in line with statewide data that showed the leisure and hospitality industry suffered the state’s biggest job losses in year-over year comparison.
He said statewide the tourism industry lost 638,000 jobs.
“In Seneca County, tourism accounts for more than 8% of the county’s total employment, (which is) above the regional average,” he said.
Behind the scenes, the region’s tourism agencies are preparing for a comeback. Some of those preparations have been done by way of a loose consortium of Finger Lakes tourism agencies who have adopted the motto, “We are stronger together.”
Valerie Knoblauch, who heads Ontario County’s tourism agency, the Finger Lakes Visitors Connection, said she is “very proud of what Finger Lakes Visitors Connection has done to help our businesses reopen.” She said there have been three distinct components of those efforts, including stabilizing businesses and community building through the long quarantine.
“We worked closely with many partners and accomplished many firsts,” she said. “For instance, we worked with the city of Geneva to produce a Spanish guide to things to do during COVID-19, and with our various tourism private sector partners to produce an activity guide that can transition from quarantine to family fun to website downloads.”
The next step is what Knoblauch calls “recovery and reopen,” and she pointed to a new agency website link, visitfingerlakes.com/reopen, that includes resources for all businesses, not just tourism.
Knoblauch pointed to another agency initiative called the Sanitation Resource Bank, a cooperative-buying process to access PPE, sanitation supplies and social distancing signage that businesses can purchase at bulk buying prices.
“Next we will be focusing on repositioning the market,” she said. “We have many studies about traveler sentiment and appropriate messaging as destinations begin to open up. We know that people will be looking towards safe (from the virus) destinations with big outdoor spaces. We know that they will want to travel with family first and multi-generational travel will be big. We are developing the right message to release at the right time — with flexibility of course, as the short-term future is still a work in progress.”
She said the agency has also created FLXToGo as a “one-stop resource for information while you’re staying near home.”
Shipley said his agency has been “focused on helping our local workforce navigate the complexities of re-opening their businesses and working with our regional partners in developing broad-based solutions to re-growing the tourism industry.”
Like the Visitors Connection, Shipley said the Seneca Chamber is providing the latest information and updates on the reopening from state government and the regional control room formed to assess conditions related to COVID-19 and the effects those conditions have on moving through the business reopening phases.
“We have provided a comprehensive toolkit for business that included reopening guidance and best practices along with tools that businesses can use to engage its customers,” he said. “We have also worked with our One Seneca partners to maintain an updated list of businesses that remain open to the public. We have also launched an updated tourism website, www.discoverseneca.com, to help streamline tourism information and tie-in to the state and region’s tourism information network.”
Yates County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jessica Bacher said the agency, which also serves as the county’s tourism promotion group, has been working since March to keep its partners up to date with changes related to business operations and COVID-19 orders.
“We worked with Finger Lakes Economic Development Center of Yates County in creating a Be Local, Buy Local Gift Certificate Program,” she said. “This program is helping to stimulate the local economy and has sent over $8,000 to local businesses for the purchased certificates.”
The gift certificates can be used for retail shops, restaurants, wineries and craft beverages, the movie theater, vet clinics and more, Bacher explained.
In preparation for the reopening, said Bacher, the agency has listed on its website, yatesny.com, recommended reopening guidelines for business segments throughout Yates County.
Christine Worth, director of tourism and promotion in Wayne County, said that “from the beginning it was extremely important for me to be a resource for our tourism businesses.” Through Zoom teleconferencing, she has met with the bed and breakfast owners, museums, gift shops, restaurants and farm markets on the reopening phases.
“It has been a great opportunity for face-to-face communication regarding the required businesses reopening safety plans,” Worth said. “Our businesses were glad to take part in our Zoom calls, which allowed time for new business guideline discussion along with best practices. It also allowed businesses to ask each other questions on changes that are being made. These calls have also been a good tool to remind businesses to keep websites and social media up to date with hours of operation and offer industry resources for completing the plans.”
Worth said she works closely with Wayne County Public Health, meaning she can be “a direct link for questions our tourism businesses have and reiterate the importance of New York state’s mandatory guidelines regarding physical distancing, protective equipment, hygiene and cleaning, communication and screening.”