Oneida County wants to help restaurants and other small retailers make the most of their pandemic-limited capacity by expanding outdoors and gradually learn to live with the COVID-19.
County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. said Thursday that county officials plan later this week to help cities, towns and villages use their zoning and related rules to allow more outdoor seating and perhaps close some state roads as has been done elsewhere. The county also wants to advocate for the state Liquor Authority to give localities more leeway in managing open container laws and ease up on rules relating to outdoor alcoholic-beverage service.
The goal is to help restaurants and merchandise retailers have more room as they follow social-distancing requirements that reduce their current capacity. Picente cited industry estimates that 30 percent to 40 percent of restaurants may close permanently if they are not able to expand by already-allowed take-out service in as little as a few weeks.
Restaurants would be able to open normally but with restrictions to promote social distancing under the third phase of gradual region-by-region reopening rules put forth by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration. The earliest that phase could begin is mid-June because each phase must be separated by 14 days to monitor signs of growing cases and hospitalizations in each region.
"We need to find ways in which businesses can recover and recover safely," Picente said during the daily local COVID-19 response briefing Thursday afternoon. "This summer it’s imperative that we continue to work to manage the health emergency but also as I continue to say deal with the recovery and the reopening the best way we can.”
"I continue to stress that as the days move on in this phase one and as the weather improves that we have to continue to find ways to live with this disease instead of hiding from it."
The county reported two COVID-19-related deaths on Thursday. One person was a resident of a nursing home, and the other lived at home and died at a hospital. So far, 37 county residents known to have COVID-19 have died.
Seventeen new cases were confirmed, bringing the county's total so far to 819, with 31 county residents being treated in hospitals within the county, including seven at Rome Memorial and 24 at the two Mohawk Valley Health System hospitals in Utica.
Picente said he believes the county and Mohawk Valley region of which it is a part remain on track to progress to phase two of opening June 1. Businesses allowed to reopen then include professional services including barbershops and salons, retailing with restrictions, administrative support and real estate and renting and leasing.
The county announced that supplies such as cleaning products, paper towels, gloves and food baskets for children will be available for free to child care providers from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County, on Second Street in Whitestown, near the county's public works garage on Judd Road. questions may be directed to CCE at (315) 736-3394.
Helping restaurants get more capacity is part of the theme of learning to live with the pandemic and its related ongoing restrictions. Picente said he plans to have discussions with religious organizations and public libraries about ways to reopen safely. He noted precautions like social distancing, wearing of masks or other face coverings and using personal protective equipment appear to work, noting only a handful of confirmed cases among some 1,500 county employees, thanks to use of PPE.
Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, D-119th Dist. of Marcy wrote to Liquor Authority Chairman Vincent Bradley asking for help for COVID-affected liquor-licensed restaurants earlier this month. The agency could offer refunds or cut the cost of renewals, and should help restaurants use outside seating to expand capacity without further approval, she said.
"Our bars and restaurants have followed all State rules and regulations, along with paying the appropriate fees associated with their establishments’ licensure with the understanding that they would be able to run their businesses as intended," Buttenschon said in the May 4 letter. "No one could have imagined a scenario such as the one we are in due to COVID-19. Our businesses should not be punished as a result of this crisis."
The county Health Department inspects restaurants for compliance with sanitary regulations, the state Liquor Authority has jurisdiction over alcoholic beverages, and localities govern the ability to use sidewalks and similar outdoor space, which does not affect county health inspections, Health Director Phyllis Ellis explained. Having more space to use can give restaurants more room to keep customers widely separated but do more business, she noted.
“When you’re at a restaurant and you’re eating you’re not having a mask, so the distance is really important.”
In addition, adding outdoor seating can help lure customers who might be more wary of dining indoors now, Picente said. "You can go back to your favorite restaurant and if you want to, you can sit outside. Our hope is that mother nature cooperates with us."
Picente said he believes there s a good chance schools can reopen on site in the fall with modifications to promote social distancing and use of protective equipment, and that it's important that they do for social and mental-health reasons. "We do believe it's important for our students to get back in the classroom, and I think there are ways to do that safely."
Cuomo again said Thursday that it isn't clear if schools can reopen as normal in September. Schools and colleges are to submit plans for various scenarios of opening in July. Cuomo noted that 157 cases of an apparently COVID-related condition in children and teenagers are being investigated in the state after the deaths of three children and a teenager.
Cuomo also announced that the state is extending sales tax interest and penalty relief through June 22. The state previously provided relief through May 19 for returns due March 20. This extension could provide interest and penalty relief for up to 89,000 vendors who had returns due in March. These small businesses file their taxes quarterly and annually, and have taxable receipts of less than $300,000 in the previous quarter.
The state on Thursday said there were 246 new COVID-19 cases statewide the previous day, the lowest number yet. There were 105 deaths, including 78 in hospitals, and 27 in nursing homes.
Cuomo also endorsed us of personal protective equipment, which he credited with helping hold down the number of cases among state workers using it, as indicated by sampling for antibodies associated with the disease.
"There's a message for all of us, which is the PPP actually works. The mask is not just a social symbol."