I recently had the honor of accepting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s invitation to serve as his special adviser for reopening the Rochester and Finger Lakes region in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Cuomo has emerged as a national leader through this pandemic and I am proud of how he has led New York. My role as his adviser is not to make decisions, recommendations, or write a plan to reopen businesses across the region. It is to ask questions, listen, and share information I receive to assist the governor in his decision-making process. I consider my role a direct conduit to the governor, providing the best information that I can based upon input from local stakeholders.
I have received and responded to countless emails, made and answered hundreds of phone calls, and participated in dozens of video teleconferences with these stakeholders. The effort started with Finger Lakes regional county health directors. They are terrific. They shared information on the things they are doing, the support they need, and their view on how to reopen safely with a plan driven by data. That is a key part of what Gov. Cuomo is looking for to get businesses going again. Meetings with federal, state, and local elected officials, industrial development agencies, chambers of commerce and business associations, business owners, executives, employees, and leaders from all nine of the Finger Lakes region counties helped gather the data and input that will drive decisions in Albany. The governor does not want to reopen too quickly and spike illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths.
We expect the construction and manufacturing industries to open first as a test bed to see how reopening impacts infection rates. More on that in a moment. Regardless of when any industry gets the go-ahead from New York state, I recommend preparing now for reopening. Every business or organization should first work on four basic components: Face masks and appropriate personal protective equipment, hand sanitizing availability for employees and customers, social distancing plans, and facility disinfecting protocols.
Gov. Cuomo and I know that many people are upset and frustrated. Everyone is losing something during this process. We get that. However, the governor is not going to be pushed into a rapid reopening by criticism or protests. Anyone who chooses to violate the state’s executive orders may be putting their business at risk of enforcement action. As much frustration as we are seeing now, I urge businesses to not compound their troubles by adding more problems down the road. We do not want any business owner to feel more pain than they are feeling right now. We understand the financial pressures people are under. It is horrible on many fronts. Again, public health data will drive Gov. Cuomo’s decisions. This is a killer virus and the decisions being made are to protect life. We cannot be hasty and return to square one.
Once the first businesses reopen in phase one of the multi-phased initiative, the governor plans to implement a pause for two weeks before the opening of any other industries. As businesses reopen, the state will compile infection rate and hospitalization data as well as evaluate the capacity for testing and results of contact tracing. Based on an assessment of the data gleaned from these areas, the governor will either continue easing restrictions with a second phase of openings or implement another pause. We can expect the slow and steady pace to inform Albany on making the proper decisions.
Moving forward to post-pandemic planning, businesses should explore how they can reinvent themselves for the future. One of my biggest fears is that when decisions are made and our economy begins to reopen, people will justifiably hesitate to flock back immediately. I expect a great deal of fear on the part of consumers going forward until there is a reliable vaccine available. That could throttle spending even after the public is less at risk of contracting the disease.
The remote workplace is something that Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and many other companies learned to embrace in a matter of weeks. I am proud of how the Rochester Chamber team responded to seamlessly and remotely provide the advocacy and services our members need to navigate the pandemic. We are on point every day, available 24/7, but not doing it the way we usually do. We are not out visiting and touring member businesses to learn how we can help them. We are not hosting in-person networking and professional development events. We are now doing all of those things remotely through technology. I see this continuing even well after the pandemic at Rochester Chamber and other businesses as a way to create efficiencies and save money. Rather than thinking about just getting back to work, let’s reimagine how we can work in the future.
I close by expressing my sincere thanks to the health care professionals and first responders serving our community on the front lines. They have done such an outstanding job and make us all proud. Before the pandemic, many of these people worked in anonymity. Their value has now risen to the top. They risk their lives and in many cases the lives and health of their families every day, not just here in our region but across our state and across our country. In a previous career, I was on the front lines in public safety and never took anything for granted. But when I look at what these men and women have done, it reinforced the great value, courage, and integrity they bring, asking for no recognition in return. So I ask on their behalf for all of us to both demonstrate and extend our greatly deserved gratitude.
Our region has responded remarkably to this pandemic. What we are doing is working. Now is not the time to let up.
Robert J. Duffy is president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at rduffy@GreaterRochesterChamber.com.