WATERTOWN — Dave Etsen doesn’t know why his business in the Salmon Run Mall remains in limbo while Walmart and other big-box retailers have been open since the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March.
With Phase IV of the reopening of the north country occurring Friday, Mr. Etsen, the owner of Rainbow Zen, doesn’t understand recent comments made by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul for her concerns over air conditioning that are keeping the Salmon Run Mall and other indoor shopping centers closed.
“It’s crushing,” he said.
Gyms, movie theaters, amusement parks and bowling alleys also won’t reopen under Phase IV of the north country’s economy. Their opening remains unclear as they are not listed in the state’s guidelines for reopening and there is no Phase V.
Throughout the pandemic, Walmart, Target, Home Depot and Lowe’s all have been busy, with their parking lots full of shoppers. Those stores have air conditioning systems.
Why are they safe and not the malls, he wondered.
The Rainbow Zen store in Watertown and outlets in the Destiny USA mall in Syracuse and in Sangertown Square mall in Utica have been dark during the past three months.
Mr. Etsen blamed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for the situation for not caring about small business owners.
“It’s extremely arbitrary and 100 percent discriminatory,” he said.
On Thursday, the owners of the Watertown mall, The Pyramid Group in Syracuse, released a statement about the lieutenant governor’s comments on HVAC systems in enclosed shopping malls.
“Numerous health and safety experts support the view that enclosed shopping centers present no greater risk of spreading the virus through their HVAC systems than standalone, freestanding retailers’ locations,” Pyramid said in the statement.
“If anything, the relative risk within our airy, enclosed malls may in fact be lower as we have done more than is necessary based on health and safety recommendations to improve the existing air filtration systems within our shopping centers to bolster the quality of airflow within our centers.”
Recently, Gov. Cuomo expressed concerns about mall shoppers not following social distancing guidelines put out by the state to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
But the argument to keep malls closed because of risks attributed to HVAC systems is new, at least to the business owners who are just trying to survive.
Scott A. Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Legislature and a member of the Control Room, the group overseeing the north country’s reopening, said the state has had concerns about HVAC systems right along.
He noted that educational organizations also are grappling with the HVAC issue to make it safe for students and staff.
He and other members of the control room continue to lobby the governor’s office about getting malls open, he said.
Meanwhile, state Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, continued criticism of the governor’s handling of the economy’s reopening, accusing him of changing the rules to allow businesses to reopen. He said that the north country has done well with keeping coronavirus cases down.
“These businesses were prepping to reopen and get people back to work and now the State has pulled the rug out from underneath them,” the assemblyman said in a statement.
Lt. Gov. Hochul said those reopenings have been temporarily postponed.
“Phase IV is going to continue to have announcements, not just the first day, necessarily, but something that wasn’t covered could easily be the second day, or the first week, second week,” she said.
Mr. Etsen said he and his more than 30 employees continue to wait for that day to come.