Cindy Schultz / The New York Times

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), pictured in an April press conference, outlined a reopening plan set to occur in phases. Tompkins County, a lower risk region in the Southern Tier, would be one of the first to reopen, but will not until all CDC guidelines are met.

May 6, 2020

Cuomo Unveils State Reopening Guidelines; Tompkins County Ahead of the Curve

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) laid out a tentative plan for the restoration of New York’s businesses in a Monday press conference, outlining how and when the state economy would begin to reopen.

Stressing the uncertainty of the current pandemic, Cuomo said that the state will reopen on the basis of seven Center for Disease Control recommendations that are meant to minimize the infection rate of COVID-19.

Individual regions will be allowed to resume economic activity based on their success in attaining those metrics, including decreases in COVID-19 hospitalizations and increases in diagnostic testing and contact tracing capacity. This would mean that some parts of the state would reopen before others.

“If upstate has to wait for downstate to be ready, they’re going to be waiting for a long time,” Cuomo said.

Specifically, the CDC guidelines indicate that regions must report a decline in hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19, a minimum of 70 percent open hospital beds for a potential “second wave” of the pandemic, a rate of diagnostic testing of 30 tests per 1 thousand residents and at least 30 contact tracers per 100 thousand people.

Tompkins County —  considered part of the lower-risk Southern Tier region by the state government — is poised to be one of the first areas to reopen, although Cuomo wrote that “currently, no region meets all the requirements necessary to reopen safely and securely” in a May 4 tweet.

The Southern Tier only lags behind the guidelines in testing and contact tracing capacity, fulfilling the rest of the goals set by the state government.

However, Tompkins County finds itself already meeting those individual guidelines and “has been at the forefront of testing for a number of weeks now,” according to John Turner, a Cayuga Medical Center spokesperson.

Cuomo noted that New York state had higher per capita testing rates than any other state or any country, but conceded that much of that was concentrated in areas greatly affected by the virus. “We’re way ahead in testing, but it doesn’t matter state-wide to open a region,” he said.

On April 26, the Tompkins County Health Department announced that they were expanding testing to all “essential” workers and not just residents with a suspected COVID-19 infection. In total, the TCHD has conducted over 4,000 tests in the past month, according to Turner.

As a result, coupled with the advent of same-day testing for potential COVID-19 samples, Tompkins County has been able to meet the individual state requirement of at least 30 tests per one thousand residents.

The other criteria where the Southern Tier did not meet state standards for reopening is its capacity for contact tracing, which refers to the practice of investigating those who could have come into contact with residents infected with COVID-19 in order to prevent further transmission of the virus.

The TCHD oversees the county’s contact tracing efforts, which can be staffed with up to 30 nurses working seven days a week. However, a reduced need for tracers in Tompkins County has meant that there are more often less than half of that number working at a given time, according to Samantha Hillson, a TCHD spokesperson.

Cuomo praised the efforts of health and elected officials in dealing with the pandemic. “What the governments have done – federal, state, local – what we’ve done in this state has literally saved lives,” he said.

The prospect of reopening is a tantalizing prospect for Ithaca businesses, which are struggling with a lack of customers both as a result of the lockdown and the mass exodus of Cornell students from the city.

However, Cuomo reiterated that the state would remain in lockdown until May 15 before making a decision to reopen based on the CDC guidelines.

The plan for reopening was described as “phased” by Cuomo: Manufacturing and construction would be the first to be authorized, followed by an observational period of two weeks to evaluate its effect on infection rates.

If the rates do not increase, the second phase would be a reopening of professional services and some retail. This would be followed by restaurants and hotels and finally, education and recreation as the last phase.

Cornell has already canceled the rest of its school year, as uncertainty looms over the coming fall 2020 semester.

“We’ve done great work, at a tremendous cost and tremendous hardship,” Cuomo said. “We just have to remain vigilant and smart and competent going forward.”