WATERTOWN — Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, held a conference call this week with elected officials in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties to hear concerns they have about the state’s reopening standards and phases, unemployment concerns and long-term economic impact.
Some common themes throughout the call were additional funding for county governments, an eagerness to reopen safely, meeting guidelines laid out by the state to reopen and what will happen to the workforce when economies begin those phases.
Scott Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators, told Ms. Stefanik businesses are optimistic about reopening, but not as optimistic the marketplace will be ready when they do. Businesses going from idling costs to full operation costs without a strong marketplace can be dangerous, he said.
“When that happens,” he said, “it is strictly a race to the bottom.”
On the Jefferson County side, Mr. Gray said some financial aid will be critical. He said the county is “going through” furloughs right now. The economic impact has a low projection of $15 million, he said, but officials are bracing for revenue losses up to $35 million. He said the county is looking at a three- to five-year plan to recover.
“The entire New York delegation is in support of additional funds for state and county governments,” Ms. Stefanik said to Mr. Gray. “We know how important that is.”
Watertown Mayor Jeffrey Smith also spoke on the call. He said phase one of reopening the economy is supposed to begin May 15, but many aspects of the plan are still unknown. He also said Fort Drum was “completely discounted” from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s advisory board to reopen the economy.
“There is no common sense to this reopening,” Mr. Smith said. “I see the governor has a fresh haircut every day, but realistically our residents can’t get haircuts for another 30 days or close to that.”
As previously reported in the Times, regions of the state will reopen in four phases with two weeks between each phase. Construction, manufacturing and curbside pickup retail will open first. Phase II businesses include professional services, finance and insurance, retail, administrative support and real estate, with restaurants and hotels set to reopen in Phase III. Arts, entertainment, recreation and educational facilities will open in the final stage, or Phase IV, of reopening.
Randall Schell, the Lowville town supervisor, came on the call and said small construction crews are finding it much better to not work right now. They are “probably” making more money on unemployment than they would during this point in the season, a concern the Times reported on April 17.
“I wonder about how willing people are going to be to go back to work once this opens up a little bit,” Mr. Schell said.
Sen. Joe Griffo, who represents St. Lawrence, Lewis and Oneida counties in the state senate, then said there is a general concern that in some cases employees are making more not working, and that has been brought to the attention of many who are managing state unemployment.
“And that’s not the intention, but that’s the result of the federal pandemic money and the state money combined,” Mr. Griffo said. “That is in my opinion something that is needed.”
He said employees who refuse to come back to work when they are offered their job back would likely become ineligible for unemployment. However, some who do refuse might cite safety as a reason for not coming back.
“That we haven’t been able to overcome right now,” he said, “because that would trump bringing them back to work.”
Mr. Schell also noted that the economy in Lewis County is largely based on recreation and he’s unclear on what that means for summer programs.
“I noticed that’s way down on level four of the phases that the governor has put forward,” Mr. Schell said, “and I really hope they can be relaxed a heck of a lot quicker than the governor plans on doing it.”
Rita Curran, a member of the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators, said she was speaking to the congresswoman on behalf of a group of cosmetologists in her area. She said many have gone without a paycheck in over a month, and since most are self-employed individuals, it is even more difficult to obtain unemployment benefits. She asked the congresswoman to look into amending those provisions so applying for unemployment isn’t as daunting, as the Times reported April 25.
“They were very disappointed to see they ranked in the number four group for people and going back to work,” Ms. Curran said.
Joseph Lightfoot, chairman of the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators, said a rather unique concern for his county is that it has four universities within it, and students have had to leave some property behind when the campuses closed. Those students will be coming back into the county shortly to receive those belongings, and the county is trying to coordinate with the schools to ensure that process is done safely.
Lawrence Dolhof, chairman of the Lewis County Board of Legislators, said the board’s primary concern is meeting the level of testing required by the state. This is a sentiment many echoed during the call. An area must have 30 tests for every 1,000 residents per month and a baseline of 30 contact tracers — or people who track who infected New Yorkers have been in contact with — for every 100,000 residents to start the reopening process.
Mr. Dolhof said Lewis County can meet the state guidelines to reopen, with the exception of testing kits.
“Our immediate concern is to reopen,” he said, “and in order to do that, we need the testing kits.”