Some high school commencements not ruled out as phase two appears near

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As the Mohawk Valley region appears about to enter the second phase of pandemic reopening Friday, Oneida County officials are discussing details such as potential hot spots to watch for signs of a resurgence, how to help certain businesses and public services like libraries reopen with reduced risk, and even not ruling out actual high school commencement services in some communities.

Oneida County reported three deaths from mid-day Tuesday to Wednesday afternoon, for 46 since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived locally in March. All three were related to nursing homes, where more than one in five of the county’s confirmed cases have occurred.

Twenty-three new cases were confirmed in the previous 24 hours, the county said Wednesday, bringing the total since tracking began in mid-March to 936. Of the new cases, 14 were related to nursing homes.

The percentage of all diagnostic tests conducted on county residents is running at about 4.4 percent and holding steady, County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. noted during the county’s daily COVID briefing Wednesday afternoon. That, and the fact that the region appears to meet all seven main measures for qualifying, suggests the six-county Mohawk Valley region can proceed to the state’s second phase of restriction-lifting on Friday, Picente said.

That phase includes finance and insurance; retail other than the curb-side service opened May 15 or those deemed essential and open all along; administrative support; real estate, rental and leasing; and professional services, which appears to include salons and barbers. Picente said he has not seen a definitive written answer on whether salons and barbers are in phase two, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said they’re included.

If the next phase proceeds as the first did, Picente said, Cuomo will issue an executive order and qualifying businesses can open Friday morning.

Picente said he and county Health Director Phyllis plan to talk on Thursday with school officials about graduation programs. The aim is to have to best-practices plans in place for having some kind of ceremony while minimizing the risk of spreading the disease.

Commencements would not necessarily be in June as usual, and larger schools, such as those in Rome and Utica might have a hard time, Picente said. But small districts with far fewer students might have an easier time maintaining social distancing and avoiding congregating that can spread the COVID-19 coronavirus. The challenge is less regarding students than their families as they enter and exit venues, Picente added.

Picente stressed, however, he is only not shutting the door on such ceremonies for graduating seniors, not predicting or guaranteeing them.

“It’s a special time in everyone’s life, graduating from high school, and they’re losing out on that great experience …

If there’s a way that that can be done and we can help with those plans, then obviously we want to be a part of that because we want our students to experience something in that regard.”

Similarly, Picente said county officials have discussed plans for reopening with the Mid-York Library System and member public libraries about how to safely resume services, likely starting with drop-off lending of books and other materials. There is no specific designated phase for libraries, but most seem to believe they could prepare for resuming operations by about June 15, Picente said. While some small rural libraries might be able to open sooner, others, including Jervis Public Library in Rome and the Utica Public Library are more likely to target that date.

Picente urged business, whether already partially reopened or preparing for the next or subsequent phases, to make a formal affirmation to follow best practices and guidelines. They can do so at forward.ny.gov.

It’s important that social distancing, hygiene protocols and personal protective equipment be used especially in the next phases, which have opportunities for more close contact, Picente stressed. Regions like the Mohawk Valley can be kept from moving on to having more restrictions lifted if cases, deaths and hospitalizations head back up or too much hospital bed and intensive-care capacity are used. The industries in phase two have more opportunity for close contact than those already resumed, Picente noted.

“We haven’t seen those kind of numbers because a lot of outdoor work, a lot of landscaping a lot of agriculture, a lot of construction, in which there’s a lot of separation. As we get into phase two and there’s more connection of people, one on one or even in smaller groups, that’ll open up the the scrutiny on how’s it working,” Picente said. “It’s going to come down to the more one-on-one contact and whether the people in those professions are using the proper PPE and distancing all the time.”

Meanwhile, as discussions continue in Washington on a possible aid bill for state and local governments, Picente noted Cuomo has warned of 20 percent cuts to state aid for local governments, schools and hospitals. Oneida County has a fund balance that should help for another couple of months, but after that, decisions will have to be made regarding services, the county work force and whether to borrow to pay bills, Picente said.

“If we don’t have relief by Aug. 1 then we’ve got some hard decisions to make.”
 
Picente also addressed some skepticism he said he has seen on social media about the seriousness of the pandemic and whether reports of deaths and cases are reliable and real.
 
“Forty-six people have died in Oneida county. There are thousands more in this state. It’s very real.”

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