ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo left business groups and a slew of upstate leaders frustrated Thursday when he abruptly declared that regions waiting to begin the second phase of reopening businesses will have to wait until "international experts" conduct a review of health data.
Some county leaders threatened to ignore Cuomo's suggestion to keep businesses locked down, while Assembly Member Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, accused the governor of suddenly "moving the goalposts" on employers whose businesses have been closed for more than two months.
"This is beyond frustrating for our businesses and local officials to get the word on this at this late hour," Jones told CNHI. "The governor has crushed their hopes."
He said his district office phone line was "ringing off the hook all day today" as business owners tried to get clarity on the state's plan for reopening.
The North Country, the Mohawk Valley, the Southern Tier, the Finger Lakes and Central New York were the state's first five regions to get the green light for restarting limited sectors of their economies two weeks ago after data showed coronavirus infections and hospitalizations had tapered off.
Western New York was approved to begin reopening a few days later. Leaders in the region have been anticipating it will begin to enter the second phase of reopening early next week, though it was not immediately clear how Cuomo's latest statements would impact that timetable.
Also taking issue with the hitch in reopening was Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. "This shows a contemptuous disrespect to small businesses and underscores the absurdly arbitrary nature of one man running the state's economy," he declared.
Upstate officials said they had been expecting the second phase of businesses — retail shops, salons and barbershops and some professional services — to reopen Friday morning. They said they were stunned when Cuomo told an Albany radio station Thursday afternoon that health experts would review the data from each region and decide then whether the additional businesses could open.
Previously, Cuomo indicated that the data would determine the reopenings, and officials from the five regions expressed confidence their businesses could open.
Dave Bliss, chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, said there was "bipartisan frustration" among county officials briefed Thursday night in a telephone conference call by Cuomo administration officials.
"They are as frustrated as we were," Bliss told CNHI, noting the Cuomo aides indicated the delay was beyond their control since Cuomo and his inner circle are calling the shots now for the entire state.
Jones said he was advised Thursday night that data "dashboards" created for each region are going to be updated with additional monitoring information.
Chemung County Executive Chris Moss, in an interview with Elmira television station WETM, said Cuomo has failed to provide clear guidance to regional leaders. Moss suggested business owners may simply open their doors despite not having the approval to do so from the Cuomo administration.
Steuben County Manager Jack Wheeler echoed that viewpoint, telling the station: "I think it’s just infuriating that we’ve been planning for weeks for phase two trying to answer questions and the Governor’s office can’t even release guidance about the details on this."
Last week, Cuomo opened state beaches and allowed municipalities to determine when the beaches they manage could open.
The Cuomo administration has recruited Dr. Michael Osterholm, of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Samir Bhatt, of the Imperial College London, to advise the state on reopening.
Cuomo is now expected to take more control over regional reopening decisions, using executive orders to authorize businesses in particular regions to resume operations, officials said.
Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin said the prolonged delays in letting businesses open their doors is costing local governments and the state millions of dollars in revenue. Expensive wedding receptions planned for his county have been shifted to a nearby Vermont venue because of the ongoing lockdown, he noted.
McLaughlin said fewer than 0.1% of the residents in his county are positive for the virus now.
"They are literally winging it every day because of Cuomo's hyper-control over everything but inability to handle anything," McLaughlin said.
Cuomo said his reopening standards have been consistent for all regions and are based on safety and health metrics.
"I can tell you in this state, there are no different standards of safety," Cuomo said, adding: "I wouldn’t reopen an area that I didn’t consider safe for my family. That’s my personal gauge. So it’s the same, all across the board, with the same rules."
Scott Gray, the chairman of the Jefferson County Legislature, branded the evolving requirements for business reopenings "a farce."
State guidance suggests office workers can go back to their jobs in the second phase of reopening. Real estate services, in-store retail shopping and "limited" barber shops and hair salons could also begin at that time.
Restaurants and personal care services would resume operations in New York's third phase, while entertainment venues and classroom education would have to wait for the final phase.
Greg Biryla, director of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said employers need more clearly defined information from the state on what is being required of them.
"Hundreds of thousands of businesses are waiting with bated breath for this guidance," Biryla said.
At the statehouse, Republicans in the Assembly and Senate sought to advance a measure to curtail the extraordinary powers given to Cuomo two months ago to manage the pandemic without having to get approval from the Legislature. But the proposal was blocked by the Democrats who control both chambers.
"They are afraid to take him on," said Assembly Member Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, noting that the public support Cuomo enjoyed at the beginning of the crisis has begun to wane.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .